FLATs: A Congressional Gold Medal

December 7, 2018: At the dawn of the space age, a curious doctor wondered if women could withstand the harsh conditions of space as well as men. The First Lady Astronaut Trainees (commonly known as “The Mercury 13”) were tested at Dr. Lovelace’s clinic in the early 1960s and their story continues today. I first learned about these women when I read Martha Ackmann’s book and had the privilege of meeting both Martha and Wally Funk, one of the FLATs, when they visited Albion College in 2008.

As a result of this visit, I have started a campaign to nominate this group of 13 women aviators for the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian honor. The FLATs were tested for “the right stuff” by NASA doctor William Lovelace almost 60 years ago and proved themselves to be just as good as, if not better than, the Mercury 7 astronauts in withstanding extreme physical and psychological tests. Results of the tests eventually lead to the inclusion of women within NASA’s astronaut corps, with Sally Ride paving the way for American women in 1983. Progress was slow, though: it wasn’t until 1995 when Eileen Collins became the first female pilot to command a space shuttle. In the eyes of the FLATs, a female pilot, one of their own, had finally flown in space. In October 2007, both the commander of the International Space Station and the commander of the shuttle that docked there were women (Peggy Whitson and Pamela Melroy, respectively), a first in space history. In 2017, with 665 days in space over the course of her career, Peggy Whitson became NASA’s most experienced astronaut to date.

In the current era of renewed interest in space exploration, and in the spirit of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, I believe it is imperative to recognize the 13 FLATs, six of whom are still alive, for their trailblazing accomplishments that demonstrated women are just as capable and qualified as men in the exploration of space. These women came from states across the nation, from California to North Carolina:

  • Jerrie Cobb (Oklahoma)
  • Wally Funk (New Mexico)
  • Myrtle “K” Cagle (North Carolina)
  • Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen] (Oklahoma)
  • Rhea Hurrle [Woltman] (Colorado)
  • Sarah Gorelick [Ratley] (Kansas)
  • Irene Leverton (Illinois, now deceased)
  • Jane B. Hart (Michigan, now deceased)
  • Jerri Sloan [Truhill] (Texas, now deceased)
  • Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman (Michigan, now deceased)
  • Jan Dietrich (California, now deceased)
  • Marion Dietrich (California, now deceased)
  • Jean Hixson (Illinois, now deceased)

and have been honored in many ways, including

  • with doctorate degrees from UW-Oshkosh in 2007 (Oshkosh is home to the annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture)
  • by H.R. 421, that recognized and honored the contributions of all the members of the Mercury 13, passed by the House “to express the House of Representatives deep appreciation for the contributions these women made to science and our further understanding of space.” (2007)
  • inductions into numerous aviation halls of fame.

Many of their stories have also been documented:

  • Tethered Mercury (by Bea Steadman and Jody M. Clark), 2001
  • Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race (by Stephanie Nolen), 2002
  • The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight (by Martha Ackman), 2003
  • Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program (by Margaret A. Weitekamp, PhD); Winner of the 2004 Eugene M. Emme Award from the American Astronautical Society, 2004
  • Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream (by Tanya Lee Stone), 2009
  • Mercury 13, Netflix documentary (directed by David Sington and Heather, 2018

 

Of the 212 awarded Gold Medals, just 8.9% (18) have been given to individual women, and just 0.5% (1) has been given to a group of women, not including the recent support for Gold Medals for the “Hidden Figures”. Gold Medals for outstanding contributions in air and space exploration have covered a broad spectrum of accomplishments, and it is now time to honor these female pilots who underwent a great deal of physical and mental stress in order to help scientists further understand the effects space would have on the human body. These 13 high-flying women pilots underwent many of the same rigorous physical and mental tests as the famed Mercury 7 astronauts yet never flew in space; the privately funded program was cancelled just months before the women were to undergo the final tests. American cultural norms and beliefs about the role of women in science and society was no doubt foundational to the decision by NASA that these women would never be part of the official program. Still, for many of them, the dream never went away.

The bravery and perseverance of these 13 women in these experiments, in the name of science, should not be forgotten, and the struggle of the women to achieve equity in the space program contributes to our view of women’s history today.

If you find the story of the FLATs (aka “the Mercury 13”) to be compelling and timely, sign the petition to show your support in nominating them for the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian honor. You can also write to Senator Debbie Stabenow, whose office is spearheading the campaign, and/or to your local representative.

 

Thank you.

Wally Funk and Martha Ackmann, with the author in 2008

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