- Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in the Space Program
This book is a story of disappointment, of frustrated hopes and unfulfilled dreams. Early aerospace scientists knew that women were better suited physiologically and emotionally for spaceflight than men because women's smaller sizes correlated to lighter and thus easier to lift payloads, and because women adapted better to extended isolation. And as Margaret A. Weitekamp's book reveals, U.S. women, accomplished aviators all, took and passed the tests designed to qualify astronauts in 1959. Yet it was not until 1983 that Sally K. [End Page 882] Ride became the first U.S. woman in space and 1995 that Eileen Collins became the first female shuttle pilot. While men flew thirty-five historic missions as Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and space shuttle astronauts, American women were grounded. Right Stuff, Wrong Sex is both a case study in gender discrimination and a penetrating analysis of aerospace policy. Because of its deep research and careful scholarship, Weitekamp's book speaks not only to those interested in a celebratory history of female aviation pioneers but also to those concerned with the development of public policy.
Weitekamp examines why women were considered, tested, and then quickly dismissed as viable candidates for spaceflight. In 1959, three separate programs—one run by the Air Force, one by a popular magazine, and one by a private foundation—investigated women's fitness for space travel. None of these programs got American women into space, and the tales of the women who took part in the testing often read as tragedy, ending in suicide (in the case of Ruth Nichols) or full-fledged retreat from American society (as in the case of record-setting pilot Jerri Cobb). When the Air Force abruptly dropped its women-in-space program, apparently because researchers found women's hormonal cycles too variable and complicated to deal with, Air Force Brigadier General Donald Flickinger asked Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II to take over the program. Flickinger sent records and data to Lovelace's foundation, which proceeded with the support of an affluent benefactor: Jacqueline Cochran, wife of financier Floyd Odlum and a decorated flier and successful businesswoman.
Other books have recounted the details of the sometimes harrowing astronaut tests and marveled at the impact of individuals like the self-made Jackie Cochran and the devout and talented Jerri Cobb on U.S. aviation history. Weitekamp's book, however, is finer-grained, more attentive to context and more effective in making a case for the importance of this small story—at its core, this is a book about why the thirteen women who passed Randy Lovelace's astronauts tests never got inside a space capsule—to post–World War II U.S. history. Weitekamp points out that military veterans dominated NASA and that the space program wanted only military test pilots as astronauts so that they could rely on the masculine fighter pilot culture to build an appealing image of astronauts. This book sets a high standard for future studies of space policy and gender in politics, and includes an outstanding essay on sources that will be of great assistance to students of women's and space history.
Camden, New Jersey