When the United States was lagging behind the Soviet Union in the race to space, the Soviet space agency announced plans to send women into space, which spurred American astronaut trainers to consider what might happen if they did the same.
In the late 1950s, Dr. Randy Lovelace and General Donald Flickinger of the Air Force heard about how the Soviet Union was planning to send women cosmonauts into space. Their reasons were practical rather than political: women tended to handle stress better, weigh less, consume less oxygen and use less energy than men, making them great test subjects for spaceflight. Lovelace and Flickinger wanted to implement a similar testing program in the U.S., but NASA was already committed to using male military test pilots for astronaut testing. Undeterred, Lovelace and Flickinger found an ally in Jerrie Cobb, an accomplished woman aviator who earned her commercial license when she was just 18. When Lovelace and Flickinger told her about the idea of including women in an astronaut testing program, Cobb couldn’t say yes fast enough! Lovelace and Flickinger broke off from NASA and formed the Women in Space Program (WISP) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the help of another historic woman aviator, Jackie Cochran, the co-founder of the WWII WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program. There, 13 out of 19 women candidates passed the same astronaut training requirements as the Mercury 7 astronauts, proving that women had the same physical, mental and psychological capabilities as men.
Want to learn more about the history of spaceflight? Check out our exhibition Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission to see how NASA landed the first humans on the Moon in 1969.
Host: Sean Mobley
Producer: Keny Dutton
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