“Why does a pretty girl like you want to become an astronaut?”
A newspaper reporter put this question to an American pilot who had excelled in the same astronaut tests as her male counterparts.
In Russia, six women, all qualified in medicine, psychology or biophysics, prepared to simulate a return flight to the Moon in a mock up spacecraft. Before the mission, the director of a biomedical institute offered some advice:
“I’d like to wish you a lack of conflicts,” he said, “even though they say that in one kitchen, two housewives find it hard to live together.”
The first example of casual sexism took place in 1963. The second happened in 2015. Some things never change.
Sexism in the Sixties was perhaps understandable. This was an era where the more traditional career for an American woman, if she worked at all, was as teacher, nurse or secretary.
The ‘pretty girl’ who bucked the trend by wanting to become an astronaut was Jerrie Cobb, the first member of the ‘Mercury 13’. This is the retrospective name for the thirteen experienced female pilots who, between 1960-61, passed the same physical tests as the Mercury 7 men, America’s first astronauts. Yet when Cobb’s achievement was reported in 1960, the Lansing State Journal’s headline was: ‘To Space in High Heels?’
The concept of a woman in space was a difficult one at the time and sadly none of the Mercury 13 ever got to become an astronaut.
Wally Funk was one of the Mercury 13 but she has not given up. The youngest of the group, she had been a flight instructor at Fort Sill military base in Oklahoma when she discovered that a privately funded programme wanted to see if women also had the right stuff for space. It was led by Dr Randolph Lovelace, chairman of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee for Project Mercury and the man who had helped devise America’s first astronaut tests.
Many of these 87 tests, performed over five days, were brutal. They deliberately pushed astronaut candidates to physical extremes to ensure that they were fit enough for the unknown environment of space.
The tests ranged from exercising until the point of collapse, swallowing a one metre long piece of rubber tubing to measure the stomach’s gastric juices, and having ice water dripped into their ears – a process so unpleasant it often made people lose control of their body.
Wally took her tests in February 1961 at the age of twenty-two. “It was kind of a shock. I swallowed so many tubes, and I had so many tubes up me, but I could take it.”
Funk not only passed, she also underwent further optional testing. During the isolation test, which could mess with people’s minds, she performed better than all the potential astronauts – male and female. She remained in a dark soundproof room, floating in water, for 10 hours and 35 minutes. They ended the test. Not her.
When the programme’s funding was abruptly withdrawn in September 1961, with NASA refusing to consider female astronauts, the women’s dreams of becoming astronauts ended. Two of the Mercury 13, Cobb and Jane Hart, even put forward their case to the House Science and Aeronautics subcommittee a year later. According to one newspaper, a NASA official told members of the subcommittee that, ’Women astronauts would be a waste in space, a luxury the United States space effort cannot afford.’
NASA also insisted that the women had to have jet training, even though no women were officially allowed to fly jets and some, like Wally, had done so unofficially. Did Funk ever feel bitter that the Mercury 13 weren’t taken seriously?
“Bitter? No. Not at all,” she says. “I’m not that kind of a person. I’m not negative. I’m always positive.”
Funk’s positivity and enormous drive has served her well for over 55 years. During that time she has taught thousands how to fly, became the Federal Aviation Authority’s first female safety inspector and the first female National Transportation and Safety Board investigator, attending to crash sites of air accidents and unravelling their cause.
Now in her late seventies, she still flies every weekend from a local airport near her home in Dallas. “I can do anything a man can do,” says Wally, recalling a childhood of hunting and shooting with a passion for sports. She refers to the obstacles encountered in the early 1960s as “the good old boys’ network”.
Unfortunately this network persisted for decades, as did a public obsession with a woman’s appearance above and beyond her professional role.
In 1991 Britain’s first astronaut, scientist Helen Sharman, also became the first woman to stay on the Mir Space Station and performed a number of scientific experiments during her mission. Yet the press interviews on her return had a different focus.
“Some of those questions were about the clothes I wore in space,” she said. “Somebody asked me where I had bought my underwear, or the face cream I used. One article said, ‘Isn’t it terrible that Helen went into space but she didn’t even wear any make-up?’”
Sharman laughed. “It’s like a really tough camping trip going to the Mir Space Station. Who’s going to take a lipstick?”
To add insult to injury, in 2015 several journalists even erased Sharman’s mission by mistakenly referring to Tim Peake as Britain’s first astronaut instead.
Women have had to fight for equal opportunities, visibility and respect since the start of ‘manned’ space travel in 1961. Life magazine, for instance, described Valentina Tereshkova’s feat as the first female astronaut in 1963 as ‘blue-eyed blonde with a new hairdo stars in a Russian space spectacular’.
Tereshkova also faced significant distrust within the space industry with rumours undermining her achievements circulating for several decades. Many were from Soviet scientists who reported that Tereshkova had had last-minute nerves and vomited in space. This implication was that nausea, a common side effect of space travel, was a sign of weakness.
Even Chris Kraft, NASA’s first flight director for human spaceflight, judged Tereshkova harshly. “Their first woman was an absolute basket case when she was in orbit and they were damned lucky to get her back,” Kraft told me in 1997, after I had asked why NASA didn’t select female astronauts in the 1960s. The US space agency didn’t admit women into its astronaut corps until 1978.
“She was nothing but hysterical while she flew,” Kraft replied. “How do you know we wouldn’t have gotten into that situation as well?”
The reality, of course, was somewhat different. Tereshkova is often described in history books as a factory worker and parachutist but this was just the start of her career. She graduated from the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy as a cosmonaut engineer in 1969 and later completed her doctorate.
In 2004 the (now) professor of engineering revealed that during her flight she had noticed that her spacecraft, Vostok 6, was pointing in the wrong direction on entering orbit. There had been an error in the automatic orientation system. This meant that, if she was instructed to fire the retrorockets on returning to Earth, the spacecraft would have been propelled into a higher orbit and Tereshkova would have died in space from starvation.
Instead Tereshkova informed ground control and, once confirmed, they sent commands to correct the problem. I heard Tereshkova speak in London’s Science Museum in 2015, when her spacecraft was being exhibited. She had kept this potentially fatal problem a secret for over thirty years so that the engineer responsible was not punished.
When I asked if she was disappointed about the nineteen-year gap before another woman astronaut (also Russian), and that so few female cosmonauts had flown into space since, Tereshkova responded, teeth gritted: “I think the attitude to women will change.”
Something certainly had to change. The year before, in 2014, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg got so fed up of being asked how she washed her hair on the International Space Station she eventually took control and made a short video showing how it was done.
Of course both sexes can easily become astronauts – providing you are insanely bright and superhumanly fit – as women like Nyberg and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti have proved.
An Italian air force captain and fighter pilot, Cristoforetti was the only woman selected for ESA’s class of 2009 and trained alongside Tim Peake. She has a degree in aeronautical sciences, a Masters in mechanical engineering, is a qualified scuba diver and speaks at least five languages – the most recent being Mandarin Chinese.
When she returned to Earth after her first mission in June 2015, Cristoforetti set a record for the single-longest time by a woman in space – a few hours short of 200 days.
That record was later broken by NASA’s Peggy Whitson, who retired in June. During Whitson’s three missions to the International Space Station, she spent more time in space than any US astronaut – male or female.
Funk counts Whitson as a friend, as well as former Space Shuttle commander Eileen Collins, and today women all over the world are enjoying careers within the space industry as flight directors, engineers, robotics experts and scientists.
Once commercial spaceflight is underway, the number of female astronauts will increase even further. Funk hopes to be one of them.
In 2010 she bought a $200,000 ticket from Virgin Galactic to fly on board their spaceplane SpaceShipTwo. Their first passenger flight is expected within the next year. Funk hopes to be on board. An astronaut at last.
Want to be updated when there is Science Focus news?
Thanks! Our best wishes for a productive day.