Excerpt from The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mercury 13

The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight

by Martha Ackmann

The Mercury 13
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2003, 256 pages
    Jul 2004, 256 pages

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Cobb had already been named 1959 "Woman of the Year in Aviation" by the Women's National Aeronautical Association and "Pilot of the Year" by the National Pilots Association. When she came home after her third world record, the chief of flight operations at Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base said that Jerrie Cobb's records beating the Russians ranked in importance to military victories. The Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce president agreed. "Miss Cobb," he said, "seems to be taking records away from the Russians. Maybe she could help President Eisenhower."

Escalating Cold War hostilities and Dwight Eisenhower's apparent nonchalance about Soviet achievement in space were very much on the mind of the American public. Just months after Cobb set the altitude record, the unearthly beep of Russia's first satellite, Sputnik, shocked a sleepy nation, shook it awake, and forever linked the military objectives of the Cold War with space exploration. Within hours after its launch, the satellite's beep was picked up by shortwave radio operators and recorded for broadcast over television and radio stations in the United States. Listeners found the sound, so far away from Earth, both thrilling and terrifying. If Communists were moving into outer space, they could dominate the rest of the world as well. It seemed as though President Eisenhower was the only American who did not initially understand the military, scientific, or cultural significance of Sputnik's chirp. "The Russians have only put one small ball in the air," he said. Others disagreed. The Democratic governor of Michigan, G. Mennan Williams, went so far as to compose a poem to Eisenhower's golf-playing detachment:

Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it's a Commie sky
And Uncle Sam's asleep.
You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.

Sputnik's launch prompted the United States to reevaluate its presumed world superiority in education, industry, and defense. Teachers reexamined what U.S. schoolchildren were learning and were appalled to discover how far behind the nation's students were in mathematics and science. American scientists studied the gap between Soviet and U.S. technological achievements and were equally frustrated to find their accomplishments lagging. Record-setting pilots such as Jerrie Cobb realized that "higher, faster, and farther" now meant something totally different since a satellite had been launched. Flying in outer space became the new frontier for top-flight pilots. But beating the Russians in spaceships was nothing like beating them in airplanes. Cobb realized that an individual pilot's determination and skill were not enough to outpace the Soviets in space. That competition would take a national effort, millions of dollars, thousands of hands, and one sophisticated spacecraft.

Even President Eisenhower had to agree that the United States was in second place in space. In an effort to address the national concern, he signed into law in 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy had all jockeyed for control of the space agency, Eisenhower decided NASA would be under civilian rather than military control and gave the new federal agency a broad mandate to challenge the Soviets in aerospace superiority. With a high-profile charge, the young federal space agency faced myriad challenges, including fundamental questions about what its top priority should be. Scientists within the organization argued that NASA should emphasize the acquisition of scientific and technical knowledge. Spaceflight, they said, should not be focused on meaningless races in which finishing first was the only goal. It did not matter to them if the United States launched the first satellite or even the first living creature--man, woman, dog, or chimpanzee. Such competitions were better suited for athletic fields and obscured the more important scientific objectives of spaceflight. Others, however, both within and outside NASA, saw space exploration as connected to larger national and even international objectives. Successfully launching a spacecraft vividly demonstrated a country's accomplishment and brought it worldwide prestige. Space launches were dramatic, captivating the public's attention with their suspense and spectacle. Thunderous noise, bright fists of flame, sleek rockets rising higher and higher into the sky--the images were tailor-made for the new medium of television. Viewers felt a personal connection and a sense of national pride when rockets lifted off from what seemed like their very living rooms.

Excerpted from The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann. Copyright© 2003 by Martha Ackmann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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