It Shoulda Been a Giant Step for Womankind Too

FILE - In this July 20, 1969 file photo,  Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.  poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag d
FILE - In this July 20, 1969 file photo, Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. (AP Photo/Neil Armstrong, NASA, file)

When President John F. Kennedy announced the launch of the space program in 1961, he used these words: "I believe the nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the earth."

He spoke the literal truth -- we did put a man on the moon. But as we observe this week's 45th anniversary of NASA's first moon landing, let's mark some more little-known space history.

When Kennedy made his speech, men weren't the only ones training to be astronauts. The Woman in Space Program was an Air Force-backed project at the Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the tests to help select NASA's first astronauts were developed. By the end of the summer of 1961, 19 women pilots had taken astronaut fitness examinations, and 13 passed. They were then scheduled for advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Florida. Some had quit their jobs in order to attend. But a few days before the they were to report, the women received telegrams abruptly canceling the Pensacola testing.

They tried hard to have the program resumed, writing to the president and meeting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson. A hearing was held before a special Science and Astronautics Subcommittee in the House. NASA representatives, along with Astronauts 2014-04-01-yourvoicesmallest3.JPGJohn Glenn and Scott Carpenter showed up -- to testify that the women who had passed the tests could not be astronaut candidates. Even though all of them were experienced pilots with commercial ratings, NASA required astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees.

AHA! they gloated -- no women qualified. Never mind that women were barred from jet piloting, and the requirements were no doubt tailored to an already hand-picked group of men. Too bad -- sex discrimination in employment was still legal, and in the end the women's program was scuttled.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. When our "giant step for mankind" took place in 1969, America, and American women, had lost out. It would be nearly a decade before any U.S. females were allowed become astronaut candidates, and Sally Ride wouldn't actually blast off until 1983.

So while we're reminiscing about the glory days of the U.S. space program, remember the women who were left behind -- that giant step should have been for womankind too.

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