“The world was not divided into those who had it and those who did not. This quality, this it, was never named…The idea was to prove…that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff.”
When NASA was formed in 1958, the pressure was on to beat the Russians in the space race. A team was formed of seven male test jet pilots who were rigorously tested to determine whether they had the right stuff. They were called the Mercury 7. Apparently, the only people who could possibly have the right stuff were men…white men, at that.
Despite having taken over in traditional male jobs during World War II, by the late ’50s, women had been relegated once again to the home. There was one man, though, who believed women might also have what it takes to be part of the astronaut program. In fact, Randolph Lovelace not only thought that women have what it takes, but that in many respects, they would actually be more suited than men to become astronauts. He began secretly testing exceptional women pilots in order to test his theory. The first subject? Jerri Cobb.
Jerri Cobb was put through the same grueling physical, psychological and technical tests the Mercury 7 men had been through. She passed with flying colors and with fewer complaints than the men. Lovelace gathered 12 other accomplished female pilots to continue his testing but was shut down before he could finish. There was a lot of opposition to the idea of women in space and sadly, these 13 women faced discrimination and prejudice that prevented them from realizing their dreams.
Stone paints a fabulous portrait of the political and social mood of the nation as Cobb and the other women struggled to have the same opportunites their male counterparts had. From the demanding tests required to become an astronaut to the testimonies in the courtroom, Stone takes gives us wonderfully rich details that will make you feel like you know these women and makes you want to root for them all the more.
If you know your history, you know the “almost astronauts” didn’t ever make it into space. But their courageous and resilient spirits did so much to pave the way for women like Sally Ride, Eileen Collins and others who have come later. A truly touching and amazing story.
Other reviews at Bookends and Challenging the Bookworm.
Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone
Nonfiction | 144 pages | February 2009 | Candlewick | 0763645028 | Audiobook – library copy