Barred from Heaven

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In mid-January 1961, A handful of women began arriving by twos and threes at the tatty Bird of Paradise Motel in Albuquerque, N.M., for an unusual series of medical tests. The women were all pilots, drawn from groups like the Ninety-Nines (the female pilots' organization founded by Amelia Earhart) and the W.A.S.P.s (Women's Air Force Service Pilots) as well as the women's air-racing circuit, the Powder Puff Derby. The tests were to assess their fitness as potential astronauts. The remarkable story of how these women got to the Bird of Paradise Motel and what happened to them afterward is documented in Martha Ackmann's The Mercury 13 (Random House; 239 pages).

Many of them had quit their job or taken a leave to go to New Mexico. None were paid for their time. Jean Hixson was a former W.A.S.P. who taught third-graders in Akron, Ohio, under the sobriquet "the supersonic schoolmarm." Jan and Marion Dietrich were identical twins from California, dead ringers for Natalie Wood. Janey Hart was the wife of a U.S. Senator. Four of them had logged more flying hours than any of the seven men chosen two years earlier as Mercury astronauts. Jerrie Cobb, the first to be tested, was a shy, restless woman who had worked ferrying planes to obscure corners of South America. She held the world record for nonstop long-distance flying and the world altitude record for a lightweight aircraft.

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The tests were the same rigorous physical and psychological evaluations that the men of the Mercury program had undergone and that Tom Wolfe chronicled in The Right Stuff: Exercycle workouts, X rays, enemas, body-mass calculations, a sensory-isolation tank, even an enunciation test. The trials narrowed the field of women to 13--hence Ackmann's title — and to everybody's surprise but their own, the women performed at the same level as the men.

LIFE magazine got hold of the story, and for a brief moment, a few of the women — the media dubbed them "astronettes"--sparkled as minor celebrities. But the macho culture of the space program was too entrenched to accommodate them. Vice President Lyndon Johnson scribbled on a memo about the initiative, "Let's stop this now!"--and without much fanfare, it was stopped. The quest to put an American woman in space devolved into bureaucratic infighting and congressional subcommittee meetings, complete with cameos by John Glenn and Scott Carpenter and predictable old-boy jokes about the need for women to populate alien planets. In the end the Soviets would be the first to put a woman in space — in 1963, 20 years before Sally Ride blasted off in Challenger.

As a writer, Ackmann is no Tom Wolfe. Her prose sometimes lapses into academic dryness (she's a lecturer in women's studies at Mount Holyoke), but the pathos of the stories she tells wins through. Mercury 13 is a revealing snapshot of a country simultaneously caught up in the romance of the future and snarled in the prejudice of the past.