Up, Up and Away
When discussing unlimited potential, the cliché “The Sky’s the limit!” is often used to indicate that anything is possible . At the time, reaching for the sky was to go beyond reality. Today, though, it is not uncommon for men and women to do just that – go beyond the sky and into outer space.
On April 9, 1959 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced the names of seven astronauts that would take part in Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States. These seven men were nicknamed the Mercury Seven. Thirty-four years later in 1995 a Hollywood Produced borrowed from the nickname in discussing the Mercury Thirteen.
Mercury Thirteen refers to the thirteen women who were part of an Air Force project. With space a premium in any space craft, two researchers wondered about the advisability of sending women into space rather than men since women tended to have smaller body frames.
Our final installment of this series about female inventors will focus on those women who helped make the space program that the international world has today. Some were true inventors while others invented thought, potential, and possibilities by their participation. In this last frontier of gender inequality, the Mercury Thirteen helped pave the way and prove that women could do whatever the men did in outer space.
IN 1960, one year after the announcement of the Mercury Seven astronauts, Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace II and Brig. General Donald Flickinger invited accomplished polot Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb to take the same physical tests that Lovelace’s foundation had developed for NASA to select the Mercury Seven. Cobb passed with flying colors (no pun intended!) and other female pilots were invited to participate in the testing. Within the next year, nineteen women had undergone the rigorous testing. The oldest was the forty-one year old wife of a United States senator and mother of eight children while the youngest was twenty-three years old and a flight instructor.
With the testing completed, thirteen women passed the same physical examinations that the male candidates for astronauts had to pass. Those thirteen women were: Jerrie Cobb, Wally Funk, Irene Leverton, Myrtle “K” Cagle, Jane B. Hart (now deceased), Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen], Jerri Sloan [Truhill], Rhea Hurrle [Woltman], Sarah Gorelick [Ratley], Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman (now deceased), and Jan Dietrich (now deceased). While none of these women ever went into space, their participation and success in this program proved women could and would one day become astronauts. The first female astronaut was Sally Ride but there have been forty female astronauts that have gone into space from the United States with the first woman in space being a Russian cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova. Eileen Collins was the first U.S. female astronaut to pilot a spacecraft.
Having someone to go into space was just a piece of the puzzle of space flight, however. Some of the earliest and most innovative computer programmers were women. We’ve already discussed Dr. Grace Hopper and her inventions and contributions to computer science. She was the one who, upon learning a computer was not working because of the moth that had somehow gotten inside the processing unit, coined the term “debug”. The female innovators of computer science and programming were not afraid to try something new.
“When I first got into it, nobody knew what we were doing. It was like the Wild West.” That is how Margaret Hamilton describes her days as one of the first programmers for the Apollo Space Program. Margaret would take her four=-year-old daughter to work with her at M.I.T. and while the child slept on the floor, Margaret would try out new things and write new code. “We had to simulate everything before it flew. Once the code was solid, it would be shipped off to a nearby Raytheon facility where a group of women, expert seamstresses known to the Apollo program as the “Little Old Ladies,” threaded copper wires through magnetic rings (a wire going through a core was a 1; a wire going around the core was a 0). Forget about RAM or disk drives; on Apollo, memory was literally hardwired and very nearly indestructible.” The seventy-pound computers on the Apollo crafts would also employ the first auto-pilot systems that now are commonplace on commercial airliners.
I mentioned at the beginning of this series that I was chagrined to realize I could not think of forty-nine female inventors. History tends to lean towards the men in its reporting and I felt that was a great reason to do this series. In the past forty-nine days we have discussed a total of seventy-seven female inventors, just the tip of an ever-growing iceberg of proof that intelligence is not gender specific.
I hope you have enjoyed this series and perhaps learned something. I most certainly have! The true take-away, though, is that nothing should stop us from becoming the best we can be. Margaret Hamilton is now her own boss as the head of the technology company Hamilton Technologies. In an article in “Verne” two years ago she discussed the differences between then (1960) and now for women. “It depends on who the woman was, who she worked for and what the culture was in a particular organization. In general, some things were more difficult then and some more difficult now. On hindsight, some of the things that were accepted back then, because we (men and woman) did not know any better, are not accepted now; and they often seem quaint and even astounding when looking back. We still do other things out of ignorance today, such as continuing to pay women lower salaries than men.”
Today software is a common term but fifty years ago it did not even warrant a line item in the budget for a space project. Today women still make less than men when doing the same job at the same level of performance. We still have a long way to go. The good thing is we still have a way to go at all, a chance to improve and invent a better tomorrow. Speaking of tomorrow, a new series starts. See you then!