The Astronaut and the Astronautrix

By Anna Reser

At the end of our last issue, I mentioned that space history seems to have a problem with women. Twentieth-century space exploration appears to be a mostly male endeavor, and the argument that it’s difficult to find stories of women who were involved is certainly true, to a certain extent. Margaret Weitekamp’s book Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: American's First Women in Space Program is such an accomplishment in part because of the extraordinary amount of work she put in to recover the stories of those who participated in the Women in Space Program. As she notes in her acknowledgements, there were those in the field who said it simply couldn’t be done. As much as I want to be measured about the difficulties involved in writing women’s history in a male-dominated field, at a certain point it has to be said that Weitekamp’s detractors were just lazy. Not writing women’s history because it’s hardis an argument for which I have no more patience.

One of the great things that Weitekamp is able to do with this book is show us that women’s history is hard for a reason, that the lack of coherent documents and the relative invisibility of the Women in Space Program is something that historians have a responsibility to explain. The book traces the history of the Women in Space Program, a research project initiated by Randy Lovelace, that explored the possibility of sending women into space as astronauts. The candidates, all pilots with a requisite amount of experience, were subjected to the same medical testing as the Mercury astronauts. Women were potentially good candidates for space travel because of the savings in weight- women weigh less, on average, and consume less food and oxygen than men. Though the women often performed better than the men of the Mercury program, women were not admitted to the astronaut corps until the late 1970’s. The technical benefits of women astronauts were overwhelmed by America's inability to imagine women in what had become the thoroughly male role of astronaut.  In lieu of a more detailed summary, you can also check out these reviews.

The women in Weitekamp’s story aren’t where we expect them to be, and in a sense they aren’t the kind of women we like to write histories about. They don’t occupy roles analogous to the roles of men. Even as aviators, before they became involved with space program initiatives, these women were in a category of their own- female pilots. The book begins with a history of women aviators in the twentieth century, focusing on Jacqueline Cochran, an accomplished pilot and businesswoman, who would later play an important role in the story of the Women in Space program. It was Cochran who brought Randy Lovelace’s research in aerospace medicine into the public view, lobbying successfully for he and his collaborator to win the Collier Trophy in 1939. It was the beginning of a personal and professional relationship that would endure until Lovelace’s death. Weitekamp shows how Cochran leveraged her feminine appearance to maneuver in the male-dominated world of aviation, and later in national politics. Weitekamp compares her to the now-mythic figure of Amelia Earhart, with whom Cochran was close friends. While Earhart was a postsuffrage feminist who advocated for women, since Cochran’s “method of operating depended on her being the only woman in a situation, she seldom went out of her way to encourage women’s success generally.” (19) Cochran was a hugely influential figure, but she was no feminist heroine. Her political power came not from being part of the establishment, but by manipulating its gendered social conventions to her own benefit.

Instead of looking for women within the establishment, Weitekamp found the participants on the Women in Space Program, and the program’s leadership, hovering around the fringes. Before the space program received its primary remit- to land a man on the moon- space exploration was a diffuse effort to which a number of different entities, including the Air Force, hoped to contribute. In this period, Randy Lovelace’s program to test women for astronaut fitness was just one of a number of similar efforts being undertaken by all different kinds of organizations. It was not until NASA began to absorb or prune these diverse efforts that the program faced real scrutiny. As NASA consolidated space efforts under its own remit, it also closed off alternative visions of space exploration, in this case a vision that included women astronauts. NASA’s totalizing vision of space exploration limited not only the possibilities for the twentieth century exploration of space, but also it seems, for space historians. No, there weren’t any women in prominent positions in NASA in the 1960’s, and no women flew in space until the 1980’s. But NASA wasn’t always the only game in town for space exploration.

After the issue of women astronauts had been forced onto NASA’s radar by the tireless lobbying of Jerrie Cobb, the first woman to pass the same fitness tests as the Mercury astronauts, a congressional hearing was convened to settle the matter. NASA made a lot of noise at the time about the fact that the hearings were convened before it became illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex. (Good job, NASA!) The appearance of two Mercury astronauts at the hearings, Scott Carpenter and John Glenn, was the death knell for Cobb’s case. Glenn’s argument, that even though it might be ‘undesirable’, it was just a fact that the social structures of the early 1960’s made no room for women astronauts, is the same argument made by those who would argue there are no women to write about from this period in space history. The fact that Cobb was trying to change those social norms seems to have escaped Glenn, and later historians.

Though NASA insisted that it did not actively discriminate against women astronaut candidates, the requirements for astronauts included experiences, like jet test piloting, from which women were barred. Although NASA is a civilian agency, its early professional culture was heavily inflected by military culture. As the last opportunity for women to fly in the military ended with the shuttering of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in 1944, there was no way for women to gain the relevant flying experience, or the cultural associations necessary to become astronauts. 

What Weitekamp is really describing in Right Stuff, Wrong Sex is a tiny slice of time in which Americans toyed with the idea of women astronauts, before the window was abruptly closed by NASA’s vision of space exploration. This window was so tiny, only a few years, and even at its peak, the vision of women in space was still tempered by gendered expectations; witness Time magazine’s coinage of the term ‘astronautrix’ to describe Jerrie Cobb in a feature about her astronaut fitness testing in 1960. “The term astronaut,” Weitekamp argues, “apparently carried such masculine connotations that even a potential female candidate for space travel required coining a new label.” (78) Women would never have been allowed to be astronauts at all, because astronauts were men.

The final indignity for the participants of the Women in Space Program was a brief report published by two of the Lovelace doctors who worked on the testing program. Any benefit of women astronauts, they said, was trumped by the insurmountable obstacle of menstruation. Their report discouraged research into women astronauts for quite a while afterward. In 1983, having presumably solved the menstruation problem, NASA sent Sally Ride into orbit on the space shuttle. It was not until 1995 that an American woman pilot, Eileen Collins flew in space. Four years later, Collins became the first woman commander of an American spacecraft.

Weitekamp traces the history that governed both Ride and Collins’ careers, and demonstrates why there were no women astronauts until the 1980’s. This is the essential insight, I think, for writing about women where we don’t see them. It is never enough to ask of history only the facts. The fact is there were no women astronauts in the 1960’s. The history is what Wietekamp gives us.

Further Reading:
For an account of other visions of space exploration left behind by NASA's project, see Matthew Tribbe, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 2014)

To see how NASA eventually got over the horror of menstruation, among other things, watch the 'Women in Space' episode of PBS's Makers.