13 Oct Paving the launch pad for female astronauts: KC woman shares her experience in the Mercury 13
When Sarah Ratley received the invitation to be part of a secret project testing women as potential astronauts in 1961, she was at the beauty parlor.
While working as an engineer for AT&T, Ratley had gone to get her hair done over the lunch hour.
“They traced me down to the beauty salon,” said Ratley, who is now 81 and has lived in the Kansas City area for most of her life. “They wanted me to take a flight the next day to Albuquerque to take the tests …. I went on just a phone call.”
These “tests” were a series of physical and psychological exams to determine who would be most fit to send on the U.S.’s first “manned” space flights.
In the early days of the space program, scientists explored sending women into space for a number of physiological reasons, including that women, on average weigh less, which reduces the amount of fuel needed to put the spacecraft into orbit.
Dr. Randy Lovelace II and the staff at his clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, scored prospective astronauts on a full gamut of tests, including 75 rounds of X-rays and hours spent floating in dark isolation tanks.
“The people there were very supportive, and I think they wanted the program to succeed,” Ratley said. “It was just an extremely thorough physical … and the psychological testing, like putting us in a tank and in the dark to see if we would get claustrophobia …. Well, I just considered them pretty normal tests. I remember on that bicycle I just kept going and going and said (to myself), ‘I will make it. I will make it. Keep going. Keep going.’”
And Ratley did keep going.
Of the 25 women that were invited to Lovelace’s clinic, 13 ladies, including Ratley, were selected to undergo further testing at the Naval School of Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. In fact, many of these women, who came to be known as the Mercury 13, scored higher on Lovelace’s evaluations than their male counterparts.
All of the Mercury 13 were experienced pilots, several having logged thousands more flight hours than any of the male astronauts in the Mercury 7.
Ratley started flying when she was just 14, borrowing her older sister’s I.D. so that she met the age requirement for solo flying: 16.
Shortly thereafter, Ratley said that she used an inheritance to buy her first plane, a Cessna 120, which she flew all over the U.S. and in transcontinental air races for women.
“Most of the time, it was mandatory at the air races in the early ‘50s and mid-’50s that we fly in dresses to show that we were still very feminine and all that good stuff,” Ratley said. “We wore pearls when we flew too.”
Ratley and her fellow women pilots also wore high heels when in flight. This was impractical and maybe even dangerous — planes are steered by the pilot’s feet, and Ratley remembers breaking many pairs of heels while maneuvering.
Despite the impracticalities of flying in dresses and heels, Ratley and other lady pilots learned to keep a pair of flat shoes and an extra pair of hose in their planes.
“We wore hose, and it was kind of rough climbing up on the wings, so you’d usually carry your hose if you took your shoes off to get in the airplane,” Ratley said. “Otherwise with the black sandpaper finish on the wings, you’d tear your hose.”
Though women were allowed to fly, they were not permitted to be commercial pilots or part of the military. The latter was the justification NASA and the U.S. government used to halt any further testing just days before the Mercury 13 were to head for Pensacola.
“I had quit my job in engineering and everything else, and I was just extremely disappointed,” Ratley said. “But I have found out through life for every door that closes, two more will open. I just went on with my life and continued to have fun, find new adventures and everything else.”
Although Ratley had been working as an engineer for AT&T and held degrees in mathematics, physics and chemistry, another reason the government used to cancel Lovelace’s project was the attitude that female astronauts would lack the scientific and engineering backgrounds necessary for space travel.
Ultimately, the gender issues and prejudices of the era won out, despite qualifications and physiological advantages women possessed.
In 1963, just two years after the Lovelace project was cancelled, Soviet Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. It wasn’t until 1982 that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.
Ratley said that while Ride’s historic flight meant a lot to her, it was Eileen Collins’ breakthroughs as the first female shuttle pilot in 1995 and the first female shuttle commander in 1999 that made her feel as if her participation in the Lovelace project had been worth it.
“That was what we really waited for, was for a woman pilot to be in command,” Ratley said. “Eileen was excellent. She invited us to her launches and to her parties ….You could not ask for a nicer individual, a more outgoing person and she recognized us. She said that she stood on our shoulders and that she appreciated those that had gone before her, and the pathway that they created.”
Although Ratley said that she was the only woman in many of her STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes in college, she is excited that today’s girls have more options.
“Girls can be very scientifically and mathematically inclined, and can go to the very top too,” Ratley said.
This Saturday, KCPT’s Community Cinema screening of “MAKERS: Women in Space” will explore the history of women in the final frontier, and Ratley will share some of her experiences.
Major Funding for Education coverage on KCPT provided by Jo Anna Dale and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Story by Lindsey Foat, KCPT