During the 1960s at the height of the Cold War and the space race, 13 women went through grueling NASA tests. It was a set of tests to prove they could go on to become astronauts, but none of the women ever made it to space. In fact, the program’s eventual shutdown changed the whole landscape of space travel for many decades.
In 1969, NASA picked seven white clean-shaven men with near-identical haircuts, they were all from a military flight background. And they had all gone through intense training and testing to be sure they were at peak physical conditions. Because NASA had chosen them as the first American astronauts, part of the Mercury 7 mission. They became household names with regular news coverage. At the time NASA’s space program was known to have some of the most heartbreaking training sessions because space travel is indeed extreme.
However, one question came from the public – if men could do it, then why not women? The Soviets sent up the first female astronaut. However, there was a whole team of women training in the Mercury 13 program. And Wally Funk was one woman who even passed all the grueling tests. It was the brainchild of William Randolph Lovelace II, a medical doctor who was curious to see if women could indeed be fit enough for space travel.
First, he started with a group of 25, and they were all trained as pilots. Only 13 passed the pilot training. Wally Funk was top of the class. Then there were X-rays, vision tests, motion sickness tests, and of course psychological profiling. Tubes were sent down their throats to monitor gastric juices. Electric shocks were used to see how much her muscles would spasm. There was even a sensory deprivation tank to test mental resilience, Funk lasted over 10 hours.
All the women were passing the tests with flying colors, so the shutdown came as a surprise. Unfortunately, it’s a sad tale of male toxicity and sexism that was rampant during the 1960s. One astronaut John Glenn, compared women training to be astronauts as if his mother was trying out for a Football team. After hearing this President Lyndon Johnson shut the program down immediately.