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January 30, 2006

Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Space Program

[This was commissioned for an encyclopedia of space travel. It was never published for some reason. Until now! - TH]

Title: Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Space Program

Type of Program: Recruitment Policy

Blurb: In the United States, an ethnically homogenous cadre of seven male astronauts in the 1960s became a much larger heterogeneous group of pilots and mission specialists, both male and female, in the 2000s.

Principal Personages:

Guion Bluford, Jr.
Geraldyn Cobb
Robert Lawrence, Jr.
W. Randolph Lovelace II
Sally Ride
Valentina Tereshkova

The US astronaut Corp has evolved from a closed community of white males to a more open one reflecting an ethnic and gender diversity nearer to that of the American population. Here, several individuals who have not flown in space also are highlighted. They helped reform the question of minority and female astronauts from one of “Why?” to one of “Why not?” Some mention is made of Soviet/Russian cosmonauts, in order to contrast the aims and practices of the two countries.

Author Tom Wolf’s book The Right Stuff (1979) reified the perceived qualities of an American astronaut circa 1960. Such a persona was that of someone white and male.

Gender diversity in space first appeared, within the metaphor of the motion picture, in 1929--with the debut of producer Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond. The pre-manned-space attitude of Americans, toward women astronauts, is better summed up by a 1957 episode of the television series, Science Fiction Theater: In it, a male astronaut is coerced to bring his wife along with him to the Moon. Her principal purpose is to do the male crew’s cooking.

Ethnic diversity in space was even farther from the American consciousness during the late 1950s. It is instructive to imagine a hypothetical African-american astronaut joining the original “Mercury Seven:” On the way to risk his life on the launch pad, this astronaut might well have been denied meals and lodging, driving through the still-segregated South.

The original group of astronauts never was officially segregated. President Eisenhower’s decision to first send military test pilots into space was de facto exclusionary. The US armed forces had only been desegregated since 1948. There were as yet few non-white officers in the elite ranks such as fighter pilots, much less test pilots.

Woman came closer to space in those early days. Might not women, who were generally lighter in weight and shorter than men, make better astronauts? (The Project Mercury “capsule” was cramped, and it cost $1,000 to lift each pound into space.) Indeed, the (unfortunate) term “astronette” was coined to cover this possibility.

Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, Chairman of the Special Committee on Life Sciences for Project Mercury, was charged by NASA to administer physical and psychological tests to the first astronaut candidates. At a convention of aviators, he wondered aloud how women would compare to men in such tests. (It was Lovelace who noted that women’s internal reproductive organs make them less susceptible to space radiation.) Shortly thereafter, Lovelace was introduced to Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, a twenty-eight-year-old pilot with over 7,000 hours of flight experience. Cobb agreed to undergo the astronaut tests, at Lovelace’s private Albuquerque clinic, in February 1960.

The seventy-five physiological measurements were conducted in secret. Cobb did so well that she was asked to help select twenty-five other female pilots for a bone fide research sample to be tested the next year. (Aviation legend Jaqueline “Jackie” Cochran, the first woman to break the “sound barrier” and later a NASA consultant, helped fund the experiment.) The fact that women, on the average, consume less oxygen than men was confirmed in these tests.

Thirteen women volunteers passed the Level I exam. Jerrie Cobb, Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, and Rhea Allison passed the Level II tests, which (in Cobb’s case) included a record nine hours in a sensory-deprivation tank. Compared to the men, a higher percentage of the women successfully passed these tests. Cobb also passed the Level III exam, including a high-altitude chamber test, an ejection-seat test, and a centrifuge test.

The government terminated the (always unofficial) women’s program at this point (July 1961). Cobb was appointed a NASA consultant.

Even when the military requirement was dropped (in the subsequent recruitment of Gemini Program astronauts), Cobb and Funk nevertheless were denied astronaut candidacy. They were not jet aircraft test pilots. (If Cobb and Funk had been military pilots, they still would not have had access to the best jets because of the prohibition against women in combat; women in the military did not receive the requisite training until 1973.) Cobb complained in testimony before a congressional committee (July 1962). However, the “star” hearing witness was none other than Lieutenant Colonel John Glenn, who equivocated on the subject of women astronauts.

Cobb went on to fly private, humanitarian air missions in South America, for which she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. With Glenn’s flight aboard STS-95 (October 1998), the stated reason for which being geriatric research, a grass-roots movement began to send the ten-years-younger Cobb on a Space Shuttle mission. To date she has yet to be appointed.

As early as the test phase for the “Mercury Thirteen,” there were rumors of an impending Soviet launch, featuring a female cosmonaut. The rumors were true, though the motivation was largely cynical. Nikita Khrushchev wanted to taut supposed USSR gender equality. At the time there were arguably more Soviet than American women in professional fields, e. g., science, engineering, and medicine (though most Soviet women had more traditional roles). However, the first woman in space was not among them. The Soviets, like the Americans, wanted to send military test pilots into space. There were no women test pilots in the Red Air Force.

Twenty-six-year-old Valentina Tereshkova had been a textile loom operator who was also an amateur parachutist. When Major Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, she (like hundreds of other Soviets, both male and female) wrote to the government asking to fly in space. During selection of female cosmonauts, Tereshkova’s letter was discovered in the files. She seemed to exemplify the idea of a Soviet space program so assured that it could send an “ordinary citizen” into orbit. (As the USSR’s Vostok spacecraft was highly automated, this was largely true.) Bolstered by her further credentials as a member of the Young Communist League, Tereshkova’s application, and those of four other women, were accepted for cosmonaut candidacy in February 1962.

Tereshkova was trained for eighteen months. Awaiting the completion of the new Soyuz spacecraft, the Soviet space program was using its time to perfect orbital rendezvous. Tereshkova was launched into space aboard Vostok 6 in June 1963. She rendezvoused with Major Valeri Bykovsky piloting Vostok 5 (launched the day before). The two spacecraft got to within five kilometers of each other.

Tereshkova spent over three days in orbit, broadcasting to her countrymen below. Her flight received more media attention than any other since Gagarin’s two years before. Upon returning to Earth, Tereshkova married a fellow cosmonaut and became a spokesperson for the Soviet way of life.

It would be eighteen years before another cosmonaut/woman flew in space. Svetlana Savitskaya visited the Salyut 7 space station (via Soyuz T-7) in August 1982. A Soviet plan to send an all-female crew to Salyut never materialized.

Captain Edward Dwight, Jr., an African-american, was nominated by the US Air Force for the post-Mercury NASA astronaut Corp. When his application was rejected, race bias was suggested. Dwight went on to a successful second career as a sculptor.

Nonetheless, a black American would be the first to break the “white stuff” barrier. In the mid-1960s, the Air Force sponsored a military space program, separate from NASA, called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. When this program was cancelled, seven of the MOL astronauts were transferred to NASA. Among them likely would have been thirty-two-year-old Major Robert Lawrence, Jr., a PhD. Chemist and African-american. However, Lawrence was killed in a December 1967 air crash during training, six months after his assignment to MOL.

Was Robert Lawrence the first black astronaut? Today, anyone trained as an astronaut is considered to be an astronaut. This was not the case, though, in the Air Force of the 1960s. Then, a pilot had to fly to an altitude of fifty miles in order to receive astronaut “wings.” Lawrence had not. Major Lawrence’s historical status remained ambiguous until 1997. In that year, the Air Force officially concluded that he indeed had been an American astronaut.

The first man of African decent in space was Arnaldo Tamayo-Mendez, a Cuban cosmonaut. He flew as part of the Soviet “Intercosmos” program, which rewarded communist loyalty among other countries. Tamayo-Mendez traveled aboard Soyuz 38 to visit the Salyut 6 space station, in September 1980. He ran Cuban-designed science experiments, including one on sugar.

Tamayo-Mendez was preceded by the first Asian in space (July 1980). Before flying to Salyut 6 aboard Soyuz 37, Pham Tuan was a fighter pilot who had shot down a US B-52 bomber during the Vietnam War. Tuan’s objective in orbit was spaceborne mapping of his home country.

A 1972 amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act subjected the federal government to equal opportunity legislation. Later that year, the US Civil Rights Commission began to investigate NASA. In 1975, Senator William Proxmire, chairman of the Space Science and Veterans Committee, held hearings on NASA’s Equal Opportunity Office. His concern was with the astronaut program.

In the next astronaut selection process, NASA specifically recruited potential female and minority astronaut candidates. To get the word out, targeted publications and professional organizations were contacted, in writing and (in some cases) by visits from NASA personnel. (Nichelle Nichols, an actress from television’s Star Trek, was hired to help publicize the search for minority and female astronauts.) The goal was to produce both nominations and applications. In fact, NASA sent recruiting notices to selected individuals who were both potentially qualified and minorities. Some were contacted by telephone.

In 1978, NASA successfully recruited its first class of thirty-five ethnically diverse astronauts, both male and female. For the first time, astronauts were divided into two categories: pilots and mission specialists.

Physicist Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, in June 1983. (She was a mission specialist on STS-7.) Ride operated the Space Shuttle’s remote manipulator arm to deploy and retrieve a payload. She later flew on STS-41G (October 1984). Still later Ride served on the committee charged with investigating the Challenger accident.

In August 1984, PhD. Electrical Engineer Judy Resnik operated the new Space Shuttle Discovery’s manipulator arm (STS-41D). Resnik was killed aboard Challenger in January 1986.

The US had hoped that Kathryn Sullivan, an oceanographer, would become the first woman to “walk” in space. However, cosmonaut Savitskaya returned to orbit in July 1984 (Soyuz T-12/Salyut 7). She and her cosmonaut colleague undertook a 3-½ hour EVA to test welding technology in space. (The US Shuttle was grounded temporarily at this time.) Savitskaya later served in the Russian Duma.

Sullivan did spacewalk, on mission STS-41G, in October 1984. She demonstrated the feasibility of refueling a satellite in space. Sullivan flew two other Space Shuttle missions (STS-31, April 1990, which included deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and STS-45, March 1992). She eventually became Chief Scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Biochemist Shannon Lucid, the second female astronaut, set a space endurance record (188 days) aboard the Mir space station in 1996. She was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by President Clinton.

The first African-american astronaut in space was Colonel Guion Bluford. Bluford holds a PhD. in Aerospace Engineering. As an Air Force fighter pilot, he flew 144 combat missions in Vietnam. Bluford was a mission specialist on STS-8 (August 1983), which featured the first night launch and landing. He went on to fly on three other Shuttle missions (STS-61A, October 1985; STS-39, April 1991; and STS-53, December 1992).

The second African-american astronaut launched was physicist Ronald McNair, a mission specialist on STS-41B (February 1984). McNair also was killed when the Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

African-american physician Bernard Harris performed a spacewalk during the STS-63 mission (February 1995). Colonel Fredrick Gregory, by then already a veteran of one Shuttle flight, commanded STS-33 in November 1989 and STS-44 in November 1991.

Dr. Mae Jemison flew aboard STS-47 (September 1992). She was the first African-american woman in space.

Lieutenant Colonel Ellison Onizuka was on the crew of STS-51C (January 1985). He died aboard Challenger in 1986. Aerospace Engineer Dr. Kalpana Chawla flew with STS-87, in November 1997.

Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Gutierrez was the first Hispanic-american astronaut in space (STS-40, June 1991).

When STS-63 lifted off the pad in February 1995, Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins sat in a pilot’s—not mission specialist’s—seat. On hand to witness the launch were seven of the “Mercury 13.” Collins went on to pilot STS-84 in May 1997 and to command Shuttle mission STS-93 in July 1999.


Thomas Hockey
University of Northern Iowa


The Real Stuff: A History of NASA’s Astronaut Recruitment Program. Joseph D. Atkinson, Jr. and Jay M. Shafritz. New York: Praeger Special Studies. 1985. Focuses on three recruiting classes of astronauts. Atkinson was Chief of NASA’s Equal Opportunity Programs Office.

Countdown: A History of Space Flight. T. A. Heppenheimer. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 1997. Most up-to-date history of the US space program.

Race into Space: The Soviet Space Programme. Brian Harvey. Chichester, England: Ellis Horwood Limited. 1988. Ditto for the USSR program.

Amelia Earhart’s Daughters: The Wild and Glorious Story of American Women Aviators from World War II to the Dawn of the Space Age. Leslie Haynsworth and David Toomey. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1998. Part III covers women astronauts.

Who’s Who In Space. Michael Cassutt. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company. 1993. Biographical and technical data.

A Tribute to National Aeronautics and Space Administration Minority Astronauts: Past and Present. Second Edition. NP-1999-06-238-HQ. A NASA publication.

[A recent trip to Barnes and Noble proved that at least two books have been published on this topic, since I wrote the article. - TH]

Posted by hockey at January 30, 2006 12:31 PM


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