The Mercury 13

Aerospace Pioneers

by claudette colwell

You've probably heard of the Mercury 7, but have you ever heard of the Mercury 13? They were a group of ladies—all experienced pilots with 1000+ hours—selected for involvement in a test program in 1960 by Dr. Randolph Lovelace, chairman of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee who administered the physical tests for the Mercury 7 astronauts. Dr. Lovelace wanted to see if women would be as well (or perhaps even better) suited than men for space travel, mainly, he theorized, because their lighter body mass would require less food and water, all of which meant less fuel to get to orbit.

Dr. Lovelace believed strongly enough in his idea that he ran his privately funded test program with the Mecury 13 at his laboratory in Albuquerque—without the blessing of NASA. The women went through the same grueling tests immortalized in the movie The Right Stuff. Despite passing them all and proving themselves exceptionally qualified aviators, they were never given the chance to go into space.

Among the 13 were Wally Funk, sisters Janet and Marion Deitrich, Myrtle Cagle, Sarah Gorelick, Jane "Janey" Briggs Hart, Jean Hixson, Rhea Woltman, Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan Truhill, Bernice Steadman, Jerri Cobb, and my sister’s college roommate Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen. I won't go into too many details about these ladies--you can read about them for yourselves--but among them are record-setting air racers, flight school founders, FAA pioneers, and test pilots responsible for proving military aircraft, avionics, and weapons.

Reading through the biographies of these ladies will reveal stories familiar to any profession pilot. For example, Jean Hixson served as a Women's Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) during World War II, flying B-25 Mitchells as an engineering test pilot. She was the second woman to exceed Mach 1 in 1957, and she retired with the rank of Colonel from the US Air Force Reserves in 1982. Gene Nora (pronounced "Janora") Stumbough Jessen was a member of the Civil Air Patrol in IL as a teenager, and then worked her way through college as a flight instructor in Norman, OK—home of Oklahoma University (my alma mater!)—eventually going on to found two aviation museums and serve as President of the Ninety-Nines. On second thought, maybe their stories aren't so typical after all!

Eager to find a place in the space program, all the Mercury 13 ladies quit their jobs to be involved in Dr. Lovelace's test program. Since all the male astronauts selected for the Mercury program had jet experience, Dr. Lovelace quietly arranged for the women to train with the Navy at the "Cradle of Naval Aviation," NAS Pensacola. When it became public the Mercury 13 were training with the Navy, congress got involved. Following a hearing to determine their fitness for space duty, which included testimony strongly in opposition from none other than John Glenn, a House Subcommittee determined  that “the prevailing social order did not accept women in this role.”

After the project failed to, ahem, “lift off," Gene Nora found herself unemployed. After a brief search, she was fortunate to land a job with Beechcraft, flying around the country as part of a marketing tour. She flew in formation with another woman and a man as part of the Three Musketeers, introducing the Beech Musketeer to America. Gene Nora had to teach herself formation flying, and she was required to fly in a dress and change into heels when she disembarked from the cockpit, but despite the pratfalls it was the job of a lifetime. It also made possible my first flight in a GA aircraft. My sister lived in Oklahoma City, and the Three Musketeers were scheduled to stop there on their tour of the lower 48 States, and naturally Gene Nora made plans to meet with my sister. After fulfilling her official marketing duties, Gene Nora made time to take me, my mother, and my sister flying that day. Obviously, that made a mighty strong impression on me! 

Gene Nora went on to meet her husband, Bob, who had been a World War II B29 pilot and was a salesman for Beech. They operated a Beech dealership, ran an FBO in Boise, Idaho and raised their kids there while she continued to fly, often competing in Powder Puff Derbys amongst other adventures. Gene Nora earned type ratings in the entire Beech line during her career, as well as a rating for the Boeing 737. She also became a prolific writer, with her first well-researched book, The Powder Puff Derby of 1929, describing the race's fascinating history. The meeting of the women involved in that race served as inspiration to found the Ninety-Nines, an organization celebrating the contributions and achievements of women in aerospace. All 117 female pilots who were licensed at the time were invited to join, and 99 accepted—hence the name. Gene Nora served as President from 1988 – 1990, and she helped grow the Ninty-Nines into the international organization it has become. 

But the Mercury 13 never forgot their beginnings. When Eileen Collins became the first female shuttle commander of STS-93 in 1999—some 30 years after the Mercury 13 completed their tests with Dr. Lovelace—11 of the original  13 were present for the launch.

If you have the time, Gene Nora has written a number of other books—all of them well worth reading and keeping in your collection. She and my sister remain dear friends and correspond on a regular basis.

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