Author: Stephanie Nolan

Jerrie CobbI know women’s history fairly well, so I was stunned to find out there was a huge chunk of history that I was completely ignorant about — and concerning female astronauts. As readers of this blog know, I have a huge fantasy about being an astronaut. Many thanks to Stephanie Nolan for writing this book.

According to this well-researched story, there was a time when the U.S. government thought about sending women into space instead of men, since they were smaller and required less resources. The initial rockets weren’t very powerful, so it was important to keep the payload light. Also, they knew that the U.S.S.R. was planning to put a woman in space, and the wanted to beat them to the punch.

This was all before NASA even existed, but a certain Dr. Randolph Lovelace II of ARDC took it upon himself to further research the possibilities. Many women were recruited, but in the end sheer machismo and sexism (including internalized sexism by one women) snuffed out any plans to have women astronauts for decades to come.

As Nolan writes:

“The story I first heard wasn’t quite true, but the real events are every bit as dramactic: a bitter clash of personalities between powerful women; masterful public performances by American heroes with an agenda of their own; a hush-hush experiment by a pioneering scientiest who trammeled social conventions to satisfy a curious mind; and a vicious emotional outburst at the highest level of government.”

The book covers the history of women in space — well, mostly in the troposphere. It seems that almost every single female aviator of the early part of the 20th century gets at least a passing reference. There’s an amazing personality benchmark that all these women seem to share. That is, the first time they took a ride in a plane — usually as a child — they had a determination to be pilots that could not be shaken. We all know a bit about Amelia Earhart, but what many of us don’t know is how many other women were like here in spirit and adventurousness.

From these women, two biographies emerge in this book. One is of Jackie Cochran, who was the most well-known female aviators of her time, and managed to garner many friends in high places, and therefore felt if any women were to go into space it should be her. Another is Jerrie Cobb, who sincerely felt in her heart that she was the women best suited for this position. Promised the Moon does an excellent job of describing these women’s lives in detail and their personalities.

Dr. Lovelace spent considerable time and energy running various physical and psychological tests on all women who could potential be astronauts. They were all aviators with some serious flying time under their belt. Jerrie Cobb managed to get much further in the testing process. The tests described sound horribly brutal; she and all the women admit it was only through sheer force of will that they could even bear the torment. But of course, that is the point of the tests — to weed out who can’t take it. For in space, if something went wrong, the astronaut had to be calm and level-headed no matter what the circumstances. Jackie Cochran never went through the tests, as she was too old (over 40) to qualify to be an astronaut. This irked her considerably, and she was determined that if she couldn’t go into space, no woman could.

Already picked for the first space missions were the Mercury 7, a group of male pilots who also had experience specifically flying jet fighters. At the time, women were specifically forbidden to fly them. These men had also gone through all the grueling tests, and consistently the women did better.

In the end, the women’s performance, fearlessness and dedication meant nothing to NASA. Space was to be a man’s world; it was to be demonstrated that only the truest and bravest could be astronauts, and in a sexist society that clearly precludes women.

If you think that if the women acted tougher it would help, you’d be dead wrong. In the chapter “Normal Women”, Nolan explains how there was such raging homophobia in the early to mid 20th century, that female pilots had to go extra lengths to appear as femme as possible. Women often flew races in dresses and pearls; if they didn’t, they made sure to change into them before they landed. And if anyone thought you were a lesbian, your career was over. So here’s one catch-22; the women had to appear like gentile hostesses, and then it was held against them that they didn’t appear tough even though they were tough. Nolan also comments in the book about the off-handed racism that existed, in a brief note of Jackie Cochran rejecting a women from her team of pilots simply because she was black.

In the chapter “Our Rightful Place” we learn of a more damaging conundrum. Jerrie Cobb was so determined to fly, they she called a congressional hearing to examine of the sexism of not allowing women to be astronauts. Kennedy had started putting some legal rulings in place to help women have equal opportunity in the workplace, which is why such a hearing could even happen.

Kennedy also was a game-changer in the goals of the Space Race. He decided that they only thing that mattered was the U.S. getting to the moon first. Unfortunately, this was another blow to Cobb’s trying to get into space — the U.S. no longer cared if the U.S.S.R. put a women in space first.

Of course, the hearing — run by men — found no sexism or bias. They simply said that no women had experience flying jet fighters, so they weren’t qualified. John Glenn, a childhood hero of mine, particularly comes of as a raving, condescening sexist. And there’s the other catch-22 : women weren’t allowed to fly jets, so they couldn’t get the experience required, so they didn’t qualify. Jackie Cochran herself testified against women becoming astronauts; she absolutely detested Cobb, whom she knew was the best candidate to go. Cochran’s testimony was pretty much the end of any hope for Cobb and all American women for years to come.

A few months later, the first woman went into space from the U.S.S.R.. American women had to wait until 1983, when Sally Ride went into space, for that hope to become a reality.

In case your curious, as of this post, there’s been 56 women astronauts thus far out of 557 total astronauts. We still have a long way to go.

Based on the IP addresses of the comments on this post, I created a map of the 10 comments on the Crows and Hawks post. Looks like it’s country wide, across the U.S. So far this seems to be a phenomenom of American Crows and Red-Tailed Hawks; if anyone spots any other configuration, it’d be great to know.

View Crows and Hawks Playing Together in a larger map

I recently moved to a house. I haven’t lived in a house in over 25 years. The move was intensely exhausting and I didn’t believe it was possible right up until the last moment, when the last plant of my many plants was placed in the yard. I felt that my energy would be depleted before the end of the move. One thing, though, that I’ve learned of late is that just when you think you can’t go on, you can. Somehow you rally yourself and push through.

The house we moved to was built in 1927. The first house I ever lived in was built in the 19th century. This new street I live in looks more similar to my street of origin than any other place I’ve lived in my half century of life on earth. I’ve also moved to a neighborhood of Oakland that I have never before frequented; it’s fairly unfamiliar. This gives me a very weird feeling. It’s a feeling of being unsure where I am of how old I am. I mean, the logical, conscious part of my brain knows the facts, but my subconcious — because of exhaustion or unfamiliarity of my surroundings — feels grossly disoriented.

There’s also the crazy flaw in the human brain that holds onto memories which no indexing system. I know that I moved out of my old condominum, and that my furniture, paintings, and well, everything I possess materially is no longer inside it. But when I am near my old condo the memory of how everything was is so strong that part of me can’t believe that it’s sitting there empty — even though I swept out the empty place myself.

There are theories that time doesn’t really exist. When I go to sleep and have a conversation with my long-dead grandmother, according to these theories my subconscious is seeing the truth: there is no past or future. But experientially, our lives are linear. We can see the past in our mind, we experience the present, and we don’t know the future.

Somehow all of this makes me uncomfortable. When I think of how I will never see Tzipi the Jay again except in photos and memories, it makes me sad, because I experience it as a loss.

As I sit in my new/old house, and my experience of the present is overlaid with layers and layers memories from my distant past, I find it hard to sort out my feelings. I find it hard to define where I am in my life.