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In the 1960s, 13 women were qualified to travel in space. But they weren't allowed to.

Years before man took a “small step” on the surface of the moon, there were 13 women who passed a gruelling set of tests to qualify for space travel. But because of a small technicality, they were not permitted to go.

Speaking to Claire Murphy on Monday’s episode of The Quicky, science journalist Sue Nelson discusses the ‘Mercury 13’ – the group of extraordinary women who surpassed several men in physical tests which cleared them for space travel in the 1960s.

But not only were they not allowed to be included in the first US space mission, while the Soviet Union sent the first woman to space in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, the US didn’t follow suit until 1983.

Why we haven’t put a woman on the moon. Post continues after podcast.

Why?

Because NASA required all astronauts to have a jet qualification and women, at this time, were not legally allowed to fly jets.

“In 1960, a woman named Jerrie Cobb, who was an aviator, basically had taken the same tests as the Mercury 7 astronauts who were the first seven american astronauts in the human space flight program,” Sue explains.

Mercury 13
Jerrie Cobb, part of the Mercury 13 astronauts. Image: Getty.

"A doctor called Dr Randy Lovelace wanted to know if women could also do the same test, so he asked Jerrie Cobb. She not only passed, she was in the top two per cent... she beat most of the men," says Sue.

After Jerrie's exceptional test results, Dr Lovelace tested more women, and a group of 13 excelled. These women became known as the Mercury 13.

"The pass rate compared to the men was greater," Sue told The Quicky.

"They were qualified physically to be astronauts, so before Valentina became the first woman in space, there were already 13 American female pilots qualified to go into space instead of the men (but) women were not allowed to fly jets, so how can you possibly qualify for something when part of that criteria you're excluded from?"

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Sue went on to explain that many of these women actually did have jet experience, they just didn't have the official qualifications, which is what prevented them from qualifying for space travel.

This wasn't the only instance of the sheer sexism towards women in the space industry. In fact, women's periods were once used as a reason for male-only astronauts, as many believed zero gravity would make the blood flow back inside a woman's body and cause issues.

When Sally Ride, the first woman sent to space by NASA, was interviewed by Gloria Steinem in 1983, she revealed just how differently she was treated in comparison to her male colleagues.

“Everybody wanted to know about what kind of makeup I was taking up. They didn’t care about how well-prepared I was to operate the [space shuttle] arm or deploy communications satellites," she said.

She was asked in countless interviews about the bathroom facilities, had quotes fabricated about wearing a bra in space, and had engineers offer her 100 tampons to take to space for a seven day journey.

Not once was she taken seriously as an astronaut in her media representation, or included in the conversations about the mission at hand.

"There's been a lot of sexist behaviour towards women astronauts, where the men will be asked about the mission and the science, but the women are asked will you miss your family, how will you wash your hair," Sue says.

With President Trump's recent announcement of plans to pour greater funding into NASA's space research, including having the first woman sent to the moon, Sue says she sincerely hopes the rhetoric improves.

"It's a long overdue gesture because they could have done it in the 1960s, but it's a very welcome one," she says. 

"I hope that if in 2024, Americans do put the first woman on the moon, the press treat these women as the incredibly talented and capable astronauts that they are. Today's astronauts are almost superhuman compared to the 60s... these are incredibly well qualified women.

"I do not want these women whoever it is - this woman who is the first woman on the moon, to be described by her dress size, her family, and how she did her hair in orbit."

But while womankind has taken great leaps in modern space travel - soon to add a trip to the moon to our list of achievements - whether women will ever be able to make the three year trip to Mars and back is still under consideration.

As Claire states on The Quicky, heavy cosmic radiation makes women more at risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers, which could be the reason for a barrier to Mars travel.

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