While Glenn receives post humus accolades as a hero, he also did a few things that place him in the category of asshole.
In 1960, 13 female astronaut candidates went through rigorous training and testing for the chance to go into space. They went through hell. During Congressional testimony over the program, Glenn objected to the thought of women even being considered and denigrated those who succeeded in proving they had the right stuff.
- Myrtle Cagle
- Jerrie Cobb
- Janet Dietrich
- Marion Dietrich
- Wally Funk
- Sarah Gorelick (later Ratley)
- Jane “Janey” Hart (née Briggs)
- Jean Hixson
- Rhea Hurrle (later Allison, then Woltman)
- Gene Nora Stumbough (later Jessen)
- Irene Leverton
- Jerri Sloan (née Hamilton, later Truhill)
- Bernice Steadman (née Trimble)
……NASA representatives George Low and Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified that under NASA’s selection criteria women could not qualify as astronaut candidates. Glenn also believed that “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” They correctly stated that NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees, although John Glenn conceded that he had been assigned to NASA’s Mercury Project without having earned the required college degree. In 1962, women were still barred from Air Force training schools, so no American women could become test pilots of military jets. Despite the fact that several of the Mercury 13 had been employed as civilian test pilots, and many had considerably more propeller aircraft flying time than the male astronaut candidates (although not in high-performance jets, like the men), NASA refused to consider granting an equivalency for their hours in propeller airplanes. Although some members of the Subcommittee were sympathetic to the women’s arguments, because of this disparity in experience no action resulted.
Although she successfully completed all three stages of physical and psychological evaluation that were used in choosing the first seven Mercury astronauts, this was not an official NASA program and she was unable to rally support in Congress for adding women to the astronaut program based solely on their gender. At the time, Cobb had flown 64 types of propeller aircraft, but had made only one flight, in the back seat, of a jet fighter. She had also set world records for speed, distance and absolute altitude.
In 1962, Cobb was called to testify before a Congressional hearing, the Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts, about women astronauts. Astronaut John Glenn stated at the hearing “men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes,” and “the fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”  Only a few months later, the Soviet Union would send the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova. Soon afterward, Tereshkova ridiculed Cobb for her religious beliefs.
It’s pretty fucking bad when a communist totalitarian regime sends a fully qualified female astronaut into space before a Democratic Republic, because of our “social order”.
Other women worked at NASA as mathematicians, and were responsible for advancing the space program all the way to the moon. Meet the women who made Glenn’s trip possible:
They are the subject of a movie titled Hidden Figures.
The first and youngest American female astronaut to launch into space was Dr. Sally Ride. A pioneer who:
went through the program’s rigorous training program and got her chance to go into space and the record books in 1983. She served as a mission specialist on the space shuttle. After NASA, Ride became the director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego, as well as a professor of physics at the school in 1989. In 2001, she started her own company to create educational programs and products known as Sally Ride Science to help inspire girls and young women to pursue their interests in science and math. Ride served as president and CEO.
No one will be following John Glenn more this week than Jerrie Cobb. That’s because following Glenn is exactly what Cobb has always wanted to do. In 1961, after being recruited by NASA and run through the same rigorous tests, Cobb–like Glenn–was deemed exceptionally qualified for the young astronaut program.
But unlike Glenn, she had her job snatched away just as she was ready to launch into the final phase of training. At the eleventh hour, NASA reconsidered and decided Cobb lacked the right stuff. No woman, it seems–no matter how qualified–would be eligible for the Mercury Program. Now 37 years later, Jerrie Cobb wants the opportunity that NASA’s sexism denied her.
Strikingly, few Americans remember or have even heard of the Mercury 13. They were a group of highly trained women aviators who were called to Albuquerque in 1961 for secret tests to measure their physical and mental fitness for spaceflight. A group of independent scientists, the VA, representatives from the military, and NASA were curious to see if women could hold up to the same grueling tests men endured and evaluated Jerrie Cobb and 12 other women.
One of the most extreme tests measured if women could handle “profound sensory isolation.” Cobb was lowered into an 8-foot tank of warm water. Called “the dog dip,” the tank was located in a small airtight room with thick steel walls: no sound, no smells, so stimulation of any kind. While male astronauts were kept isolated in another less extreme chamber for only three hours, Cobb endured nine hours and 40 minutes in the tank without any occurence of hallucinations. She later reported, “I did sneak a couple of naps.”
Cobb and the other women did well–frankly better than evaluators expected. Faced with the very real possibility of women competing with men for a chance to orbit the earth, NASA slammed the door shut.
The Mercury 13, many of whom had quit hard-won aviation jobs to take part in the Albuquerque testing, were sharply disappointed. Cobb, the first and the top candidate of the group, petitioned NASA. After little response, she appealed to the US Congress in 1962 for an official hearing on qualifications for astronauts.
After opening statements, Representative Victor Anfuso of New York set the tone for the discussion that followed. “I think that we can safely say . . . that the whole purpose of space exploration is to some day colonize these other planets and I don’t see how we can do that without women,” he declared to an audience erupting in laughter.
Day two of the hearings was not much better for Cobb’s cause. Brought in to testify were NASA Director of Flight Missions, George Low, and fresh from their triumphant solo flights, Scott Carpenter and John Glenn. Women must be better-than, rather than equal-to men was Glenn’s position, underscoring the approach NASA had taken in the “dog dip” test. He added, “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
The committee swiftly concluded its work, advocating that all future astronauts come from the ranks of military jet test pilots. Since no women were allowed to train as test pilots, the policy officially excluded Jerrie Cobb and the others from ever becoming astronauts.
The Mercury 13 dispersed to pick up their lives. Cobb quit her position as an executive with an aviation firm and took a job flying food, clothing, medicine, and personnel into the Amazon rainforest. Her work to sustain the land and its indigenous peoples has occupied her life and gained her respect for the last three decades.
With the announcement of Glenn’s return to space, a movement has surfaced to reacquaint the American public with the story of the Mercury 13 and Jerrie Cobb’s desire to be seriously considered for an upcoming flight. So far NASA has offered only the coolest of responses, indicating only a “fortunate few could represent us all.”
During this week of so much nostalgia about the thrilling Mercury flights of the 1960s and John Glenn’s undeniable courage then and now, we also must acknowledge that his place in our national imagination comes at the cost of excluding others.
There is a danger in cloaking ourselves in a deluded romanticism that recalls a simpler time when there were “true heroes” and hope for the future. Seeking to replicate that past replicates its accompanying sexism as well–a sexism that blocked the Mercury 13 from reaching the future they had worked to secure and barred Jerrie Cobb from offering the country the full measure of her character.
In denying her a chance in 1961 and again in 1998, NASA robs Jerrie Cobb of her place in history. That discrimination takes from us as well the soaring image of another hero who could represent us all.
NASA couldn’t bring itself to right a wrong and put her in space; choosing instead to send up a belligerent chauvinist who was past his prime, simply because of his image.
The year that he returned to space the payload specialist on board was Chiaki Mukai (M.D., PH.D.), a highly trained, qualified female:
In 1985, Dr. Mukai was selected as one of three Japanese Payload Specialist candidates for the First Material Processing Test (Spacelab-J) which flew aboard STS-47. She also served as a back-up payload specialist for the Neurolab (STS-90) mission. Dr. Mukai has logged over 566 hours in space. She flew aboard STS-65 in 1994 and STS-95 in 1998. She is the first Japanese woman to fly in space, and the first Japanese astronaut to fly twice. Dr. Mukai was assigned to the deputy mission scientist for STS-107. In that capacity she coordinated science operations for this science mission.
STS-65 Columbia (July 8-23, 1994) was the second International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-2) flight. The mission consisted of 82 investigations of Space Life Science (Human Physiology, Space Biology, Radiation Biology, and Bioprocessing) and Microgravity Science (Material Science, Fluid Science and Research on the Microgravity Environment and Countermeasures). IML-2 was also designated as an extended duration orbit mission focusing on medical experiments related to the cardiovascular system, autonomic nerve system, and bone and muscle metabolism. The mission was accomplished in 236 orbits of the Earth, traveling over 6.1 million miles in 353 hours and 55 minutes.
Lyndon Johnson opposed women in space, and John Kennedy refused to even speak with the female astronaut candidates. The sexism in the ‘social order’ was prevalent at the time, but over the years, women have trained and qualified to work in highly stressful conditions in space and on earth.
I wonder if Glenn ever had the guts to admit he was dead wrong.