NASA Found Women To Be Better Astronauts In Late ’50s And Ignored Results

Scientists had been pushing for female astronauts long before Sally Ride took her first space trip in 1983. In the late ‘50s, two NASA scientists conducted research outside the administration’s purview that compared space-traveling capabilities in men and women.

Their research found that women could not only be viable candidates for space travel, but they also might be better at it than their male counterparts. Yet, these findings were never published—only their critiques. 

60 years of spaceflight later, only 15% of astronauts have been female. So, how did the science community manage to mansplain space travel for so long?

Research Gone Rogue

Members of Mercury 13, First Lady Astronaut Trainee program, pose for photo
Members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs or Mercury 13) stand outside of the Kennedy Space Center. From left to right: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle, and Bernice Steadman.
(NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

Research into women in space began with Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II and Brigadier General Don D. Flickinger, the chair and vice chair of NASA’s Special Committee on Life Sciences. The two aerospace medicine experts discussed the possibility of sending women into space instead of men. 

Lovelace and Flickinger cited a decrease in required propulsion fuel given women’s lighter, smaller frames. The scientists also stated that women would need less oxygen than men for the same reason. Additionally, they referenced women’s lower risk of heart attacks, the thought their reproductive systems were less susceptible to damage via radiation, and a greater ability to endure cramped spaces and prolonged isolation. 

However, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had implemented a policy in which NASA could only recruit astronauts from military fighter jet test pilots. And at the time, women were barred from that role. 

So, the two scientists had to test their theories outside the government’s red tape. They conducted their first tests with private funding at a New Mexico facility. Then, they held a second round of testing as part of a new Women in Space program. Neither was affiliated with NASA.

Testing Tenacity For The Stars

Sally Ride training at a manipulator development facility
Sally Ride trains in the Manipulator Development Facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. (Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

For the most part, Lovelace and Flickinger’s tests were the same ones NASA used on its male candidates. The first woman to participate in the novel study was 28-year-old pilot Jerrie Cobb, who passed the Mercury 7 astronaut test with flying colors. 

The researchers screened candidates for health and anthropometric data and flight time experience. They also conducted physical, physiological, and psychological examinations that tested overall strength and endurance. In addition to this rigorous testing, women had to undergo gynecological examinations. 

These tests weren’t “tailored for women” either—in fact, some were even more challenging than the men’s. In the female sensory deprivation test, women were immersed in a pitch black, soundproof isolation tank for hours. Two women, Rhea Hurrle and Wally Funk, endured ten hours of this. NASA men merely had to soak for two to three hours. 

In the end, 68% of the Women in Space program participants passed their astronaut tests. Only 56% of men passed theirs.

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Leaving The Data Out In The Cold

First women to be named by NASA as astronaut candidates pose beside model rocket
The first women to be named by NASA as astronaut candidates stand by a model rocket at the Johnson Space Center. From left to right: Rhea Seddon, Anna L. Fisher, Judith Resnik, Shannon Lucid, Sally Ride, and Kathryn Sullivan. (Space Frontiers/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

At the time of Lovelace and Flickinger’s research, space exploration was still brand new. The only limitations were those we set ourselves via societal standards. This was still the late ‘50s, and the world simply didn’t view women as astronaut material. 

Thus, the rebel NASA scientist data was never published in any scientific journal. In fact, only critiques of these findings could be easily found in print. A 1964 article directly refuted Lovelace and Flickinger’s data, arguing that the menstrual cycle could disaffect physiological and temperamental performance during spaceflight. 

Two years earlier, two aviators from the Women in Space Program (you know, those who passed their tests with flying colors?) testified before the US House of Representatives. Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart argued that female pilots should be able to become astronauts. 

However, both the House and NASA representatives—including John Glenn and John Carpenter—disagreed. Naysayers pointed to “the lack of interest in women pursuing astronaut training, the lack of women who were qualified, and that the prevailing social order did not accept women in this role.”

Mansplaining The Cosmos

Astronaut Karen Nyberg looks out window of International Space Station
Astronaut Karen Nyberg looks through the window of the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

In this writer’s humble opinion, they could’ve wrapped it up more truthfully and succinctly by including only their last point—the social order said no. After all, how could they cite a lack of interest when two interested women were the ones making the argument? How could women who performed better than men be less qualified? 

Intertwined in the rapidly changing midcentury world were women’s rights. And all things considered, NASA’s refusal to hire female astronauts isn’t that surprising. Most grandmothers of the women applying for the Women in Space program weren’t even allowed to vote when they were their granddaughters’ age. 

As Artemis I prepares to launch into space, this disappointing piece of space history serves as a stark reminder of how far we’ve come. Artemis is the Greek goddess of wild animals, the hunt, and childbirth. She references NASA’s previous Apollo missions and celebrates strong, powerful women. 

While we progress further into space exploration, it’s critical to remember how wrong we’ve been in the past—and our untapped potential for learning, growing, and achieving. The final frontier is waiting just beyond our grasp, and it very well could be a woman who gets to it first.

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