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Female Pilots Gather for First Woman to Pilot U.S. Spaceship

February 1, 1995

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ They were poked and prodded everywhere and X-rayed 75 times. They had ice water injected into their ears to test their balance. They were spun, dunked, entombed and advised to put off having children in case space duty called.

Training in secret, 13 female pilots passed the grueling astronaut physical exams in the early 1960s, proving that women did indeed have as much of the right stuff as the Mercury Seven men. But then the study was abruptly canceled, and the notion of female astronauts was pooh-poohed by NASA for years to come: Women in space? Hah! Forget it!

None of the 13 ever became astronauts. Given their age now, none ever will. But three decades later, their hopes and dreams are about to soar into orbit with one of their own.

Eight or nine of these Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees _ who call themselves the Flats _ and dozens of other female pilots are converging on Cape Canaveral to watch Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins become the first woman to pilot a U.S. spaceship.

Collins _ not NASA _ invited the 11 surviving Flats to Thursday’s launch of the shuttle Discovery. She also offered to carry mementos into space for them.

``She’s carrying out our dreams and our wishes, and we’re happy she’s finally been accepted and the sex barrier has been broken,″ said Sarah Ratley, 62, a Kansas City accountant.

``Finally! It only took them 30 years, didn’t it?″ said Jerri Truhill, 65, a retired pilot from Dallas.

Ratley and Truhill were among 26 female pilots who underwent six days of rigorous physical tests _ the same ones administered to the Mercury astronaut candidates _ at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1960 and 1961.

Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, who tested the Mercury men, heard the Russians were preparing to send a woman into orbit and wanted to see whether women could withstand the rigors of weightlessness.

The women were sworn to secrecy. Thirteen passed and were ordered to Pensacola, Fla., for additional testing by the Navy. But before they got there, the program was canceled.

No official reason was given. The women were dumbfounded.

``Most of us had more flying time than those (Mercury) jockeys did,″ said Myrtle ``K″ Cagle, 69, an airplane mechanic from Macon, Ga.

The secret leaked when one of the women wrote about her experience in McCall’s magazine in the fall of 1961. Two years later, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, a textile factory worker and amateur parachutist, became the first woman in space. She flew her spacecraft, alone, for three days.

American space experts _ all men of course _ considered Tereshkova’s flight a publicity stunt. The Flats weren’t amused. The Soviets had launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 and the first man, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. And now this.

``We could have been the first person to put a woman in space and back then we really needed a first,″ Truhill said. ``We could have done it, but the guys didn’t want us.″

Truhill remembers one top NASA official saying at the time that he’d ``just as soon orbit a bunch of monkeys than a bunch of women.″

``And that’s one of the nicer things that was said,″ Truhill recalled.

George Low, director of space missions in the 1960s, offered a handful of explanations at the time: Women lacked military test pilot training requirements (women weren’t allowed to be test pilots then); training equipment was already overused and allowing women to use it would interfere with the men’s program; and there were more than enough men waiting for the few available slots.

NASA sent its first woman, physicist Sally Ride, into orbit in 1983. She was a working passenger aboard Challenger, not a pilot. Since then, 22 other women have flown on the shuttle.

The Flats were appreciative, but wondered when NASA would pick a female shuttle pilot.

That moment came in 1990 when NASA selected Collins, the Air Force’s second female test pilot. Two more women, both test pilots, were picked in December to pilot later space shuttle missions.

``Our timing was wrong, but I think we paved the way,″ said Gene Nora Jessen, 58, a pilot from Boise, Idaho. ``We made a start way back in 1961.″

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