Episode 7: The glass stratosphere

What if women had been among the first to head to the moon? A NASA physician thought that wasn't such a far fetched idea back in the 1960s.

Photo by Bill Bridges/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty

What if women had been among the first to head to the moon? A NASA physician thought that wasn't such a far fetched idea back in the 1960s. He developed the physical and psychological tests used to select NASA's first male astronauts. We'll investigate what happened to his program and what the women who were involved had to say.


PETER GWIN (HOST): First of all, actually, do you mind telling me how old you are?

SARAH RATLEY (PILOT): I'm eighty-five years old.

GWIN: Eighty-five years old.

RATLEY: Young! Correction, I'm 85 years young.

GWIN: [laughter] So are you, do you still fly? Are you still piloting planes?

RATLEY: Yes, I fly with a friend of mine very often now and I'm all used to all the newest equipment. When I look out now and see a beautiful blue sky, I want to be up there.

GWIN: Sarah Ratley has spent a lot of her life pointed in one direction: up. And at times, she’s tried to go even further.

RATLEY: I wanted to find out new horizons. What is it in Star Trek -- to go where no man has gone before? We were leading the way to show that women could be in space too.

GWIN: Going to space. It’s not easy. Astronauts are…


GWIN: That’s Victoria Jaggard. She’s one of my buddies here at National Geographic and a fellow editor. She also writes about space.

JAGGARD: It is a physically, mentally, emotionally demanding job. We are born, raised, evolved to be comfortable with this level of gravity, with this atmospheric pressure.

GWIN: So if we’re all meant to be earthbound, how do we decide who makes a good astronaut? At the beginning of the space race, NASA thought there was a quick answer. But Sarah Ratley and a bunch of other women made the country think again.


I’m Peter Gwin, and this is Overheard at National Geographic.

A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo… and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, and beautiful world.

This week: the unsanctioned program that showed women could handle space travel, too.


GWIN: Did you ever think you'd want to be an astronaut yourself?

JAGGARD: Actually no. I never really thought about pursuing it as a career. I like, I don't know, oxygen. Being able to watch TV. [laughter]

GWIN: But there’s something about space exploration that can enrapture us earthlings. Victoria has seen it firsthand. She was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena when the Phoenix landed near the Martian north pole.

JAGGARD: It’s like a magically transcendent thing to be around the people who have dedicated their lives to these spacecraft and to feel their energy, their, their tension and their excitement as they’re waiting to find out if this thing actually made it where it’s supposed to go.

And when that first ping comes in and they go, “touchdown signal detected,” and the whole room just bursts into cheers and applause and shouting and it’s infectious really to, to be exposed to that level of enthusiasm. And from that moment on it was space all the way as far as my career was concerned.

GWIN: As a woman who grew up in the eighties, Victoria could have become an astronaut if she’d wanted to. But that wasn’t always an option for women.

In the late 1950s, before any Americans had actually traveled to space, NASA had to choose the first astronauts.

JAGGARD: And so they're thinking, what's the closest analogue to what we imagine the rigors of spaceflight are going to be like? Oh, test pilots. Jet pilots. People who are already sort of pushing themselves at the physical and mental limits and having to think critically and make quick decisions.

GWIN: So NASA comes up with a list of military test pilots.

JAGGARD: If you're going to say this is the late fifties, early sixties, and we are only letting in people with military jet pilot experience, that automatically means no women can apply because no women are going to qualify. Women weren't allowed to fly jets.

GWIN: Not in the military, anyway. So in the beginning, women weren’t considered, and NASA was under a lot of pressure.

JAGGARD: This is the height of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This is when we're saying to ourselves, oh my gosh, the Russians, they've got a satellite into orbit. Oh my gosh, they've got the first human into orbit. They're sending dogs, they're sending everything they can think of into space to get a sense for what this is gonna be like. We need to do something really bold. We need to get our astronauts in gear.

GWIN: So NASA turns to this doctor.

JAGGARD: William Lovelace the second, a.k.a. Randy Lovelace, was a physician who also had military experience and he was the primary person responsible for developing the fitness tests that NASA would use to decide who had the quote-unquote “right stuff” to go to space.

GWIN: But Lovelace had an unconventional idea. What if we sent women into space?

JAGGARD: He had said to himself, well, actually, women would be better because women are smaller. Women are lighter. They have lower oxygen requirements. They would need less food, they would make less waste once they were up there. So why not women?

GWIN: Good question. Lovelace knew what he had to do.

JAGGARD: He took those same battery of tests and he invited his first woman pilot to come in and take the same level of tests and see, are there going to be differences in how women perform?


RATLEY: I heard that there were rumors they were looking for women who were interested in becoming astronauts. And the next thing I knew, I got a phone call from the Lovelace Clinic. This was on a Saturday and they wanted me there the next day.

GWIN: In 1961, Sarah Ratley had a day job. She was an engineer at AT&T. And she’d already used up all of her vacation time. But she asked her boss for one more week off, unpaid.

RATLEY: I told him I was going to Albuquerque for a physical exam to see if I could qualify for the astronaut program. I just told him the way it was.

GWIN: Her boss said okay, and she took off for Albuquerque.

Lovelace had been in touch with other pilots too, like Wally Funk. She was in her early 20s -- just out of college, and already the first woman flight instructor at an Army base in Oklahoma.

FUNK (PILOT): And I get a phone call from a friend of mine said, Wally, do you want to be an astronaut? And I said, oh my goodness, yes! She said, well, you get ahold of Dr. Lovelace.

GWIN: Even though Wally and Sarah weren’t at the clinic at the same time, they took the same tests. Victoria Jaggard says the tests took several days.

JAGGARD: All kinds of medical exams. X rays, eye exams.

RATLEY: It was just a very, very complete physical.

FUNK: They put all kinds of pipes -- uh, hoses down my throat to get whatever they were looking for in my stomach.

RATLEY: There were exertion tests, stress tests. The bicycle riding.

JAGGARD: Shooting ice water in your ear to induce vertigo and then seeing how long it takes you to recover.

RATLEY: I mean, every opening you have in your body they stuck something in or probed or something.

GWIN: You get this call and you go to this place and you meet all these strangers and suddenly they're there probing you all -- I mean, was, were you nervous? What, what did you feel like going in?

RATLEY: I really didn’t care. You know when you're young, things don't bother you. And I was so determined to pass. I really didn't give a darn. I just laughed at it all.


GWIN: At the end of the week, Sarah found out how she did from Dr. Lovelace.

RATLEY: He told me I had passed. I didn't care about anybody else. All I was interested in was, I passed!

GWIN: Lovelace gave the medical exam to 19 women. Wally, Sarah, and 11 other women passed. But the medical tests were only the beginning. Lovelace also wanted to test the women’s mental fortitude.

FUNK: I was put into a tank of water where the atmosphere temperature was exactly my body temperature.

GWIN: It was a sensory deprivation tank. No light. No sound. Just Wally floating with her thoughts.

Only a few of the women ended up taking this test because of scheduling conflicts. Inside the tank it’s so isolating that after a while most people start to hallucinate. When NASA deprived the male candidates of their senses, the test was ended after three hours. But when Wally took her test...

FUNK: I stayed there and I turned off my brain and I took it up to the heavens and I thought about my time to go into space. And so then after a long, long time again, he said Wally, what we're going to do is turn on the lights. Get on your towel very gently. Be careful how you come out of the pool. Come down the steps.

So then the doctors and so forth took me aside and said, do you know how long you stayed in? I said, I don't have a clue. And he said you stayed in ten hours and thirty-five minutes.


GWIN: Ten hours and thirty-five minutes: longer than anyone else Lovelace tested. And it wasn’t just Wally who did better than the men.

JAGGARD: Women had shown better results with cardiopulmonary function. They'd shown better results in eyesight. So it was seeming very promising and he was releasing some of these results at scientific conferences saying, hey look, women can do this too and in some elements perhaps they may be better than the men at handling these rigors.

GWIN: Newspapers and magazines started to run stories about the women pilots, but a lot of them treated the Lovelace program as a mere curiosity. At least one profile listed the bust size of the pilot. And some articles mused about what women astronauts should be called: Astro-nette? Astronautrix? How about “space girl?”

The women all had top-notch aviation resumes, and now hard data showing they could handle spaceflight. But this wasn’t an official NASA program. It was privately funded. And most of the money came from an aviation legend: Jackie Cochran.

JAGGARD: Jackie Cochran is one of the pioneering women aviators of her age, and she was actually really good friends with Randy Lovelace and she knew about his program designing these tests and was one of the people who was sort of influential in him thinking, maybe I want to see how women are going to fare at astronaut fitness training as well.

GWIN: Jackie had become famous by winning air races and shattering speed records. In 1953, she managed to borrow a jet from the Canadian Air Force and became the first woman to break the sound barrier.

JAGGARD: Now she was looking forward to being part of a woman program in the astronaut corps that was still forming at the time.


GWIN: Most importantly for Randy Lovelace, Jackie Cochran had money. Her husband was an extremely wealthy businessman and also chairman of the Lovelace Foundation, which facilitated the tests.

But there was a catch: Jackie Cochran also wanted to go to space. So Lovelace tested her too.

RATLEY: Jackie Cochran was coming there right after me and he said, she will be very disappointed because she cannot go into space. And when I walked down the hall, I heard her screaming at him when he told her that she had not passed.

GWIN: Jackie was in her 50s, much older than the rest of the women, and she had some medical problems. But even though she hadn’t passed, Lovelace was still depending on her to fund the next phase of the program.

RATLEY: After we passed the physical at Albuquerque, we were supposed to go on to Pensacola to get our jet training and further testing.

GWIN: To go to space, the women needed access to something more powerful than propeller planes. So Lovelace told them, meet me at the Navy base in Pensacola, Florida. He helped them out with a travel stipend -- paid for by Jackie Cochran.

But Sarah Ratley still had her day job.

RATLEY: I needed more time to go to Pensacola and they could not give me any more time off because we were on overtime as it was. So I had to quit my job.

GWIN I mean, I guess that means you thought you had a pretty good shot, right? Of joining the program? If you were willing to quit, quit a good job like that?

RATLEY: Yes, we were very much encouraged and we had the feeling that we were going to go on with the program at the time. Or I had a feeling that we were going to go on with the program. And the way it was explained to me at Lovelace, we were going on with the program.

GWIN: As part of that program, the women would fly fighter jets for the first time in Pensacola. They’d be squished into their seats from g-forces several times stronger than gravity and a brain monitor would measure their reaction.

If they passed the tests, they would prove without a doubt that they were just as capable as male astronauts and they could go to space too. But that’s not what happened.

RATLEY: We received telegrams saying the program had been canceled. NASA never heard of it and they told the Navy to cancel the program.

GWIN: NASA hadn’t heard of it officially. Lovelace was pretty well-connected and he arranged the testing directly with the Pensacola naval base. But when some higher-ups in Washington D.C. found out, they squashed the program. NASA had ambitions that didn’t include women and so Lovelace was out of luck.

JAGGARD: He couldn't get into the facilities that he needed in part because Kennedy had come along and said, right, we need to take a bold step in our spaceflight program. We need to get to the moon and we need to do it in a hurry. And that meant we had to really tightly focus our efforts and our resources on getting a man to the moon.

And that did not bode well for being able to do these basically non-sanctioned tests on women because NASA knew they had no interest in women going to the moon. They had no interest in women joining the astronaut corps at the time. And so what was the point, basically.

GWIN: So, without NASA’s support, the program ended. They said no. No, you can’t learn to fly a fighter jet and no, you can’t be an astronaut. There’s no point. Space is an arena for men.

But the women, they wanted to change NASA’s mind. They underwent physical tests, psychological tests, and now a bureaucratic test.

Fortunately, a few of the women had connections in Washington. One was even married to a Senator. So they started pulling strings, and two of the women pilots were able to set up a meeting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who had been key to NASA’s creation.

Johnson was cordial during the meeting, but a letter in his files showed that his mind was set before the women even got there.

RATLEY: At the bottom of the letter he put, “stop this now.” In other words, Lyndon Johnson was very opposed to women going into space.

GWIN: But the women didn’t give up. Several months later they got the attention of a congressman from New York. Victor Anfuso was on the House Space Committee and he led a subcommittee hearing on gender discrimination at NASA.

JAGGARD: This was the moment where they said, look, you've canceled our program but we've got this abundant data saying, hey, women can do this too. Why won't you reconsider?

GWIN: At the time, TV and radio coverage wasn’t allowed in the House so all we have are the transcripts.

Two of the women pilots made the case that they could contribute just as well as male astronauts, but not everyone agreed. Two of NASA's astronauts testified -- including John Glenn, who had just become the first American to orbit the Earth. That made him a national hero and the country was ready to listen to whatever he had to say.

JAGGARD: John Glenn was up there saying women do not belong in space.

RATLEY: John Glenn said it's a matter of our social order. Men go off to fight the wars and women stay at home. And that's the way it was at that time. Women were to stay home and be protected.

GWIN: John Glenn’s testimony was disappointing, but maybe not surprising. Sarah Ratley and the other women knew NASA was a boys’ club. But what really hurt was when Jackie Cochran testified.

RATLEY: Well, we felt that Jackie Cochran turned against us.

GWIN: And what did she say exactly?

RATLEY: She said why train women, because all they'll do is get married and have children and go home.

GWIN: That was part of what she said. Jackie also told Congress the Lovelace program was moving too quickly. She said, of course NASA should send women to space…eventually. But not now. And not with these women.


GWIN: Jackie Cochran died in 1980. And at that time, according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, she held more speed, altitude, and distance records than anyone in the world -- male or female.

But she never saw an American woman make it into space. She also never explained what made her testify against the Lovelace program.

RATLEY: We figured it might be because she was not going to be allowed in it. I have heard from others that they heard Jackie had made the statement in later years that she regretted what she had done at the congressional hearings. But we felt like she sabotaged us.

GWIN: After the hearings, Congress sided with NASA. NASA said astronauts had to be military jet test pilots, and if only men could be jet pilots, well, that’s just the way things were. And that meant there was no need for the Lovelace program.

JAGGARD: NASA ultimately decided they were not going to make the access and the funding available to continue the project and that pretty much shut the door on women being able to pursue any hopes of being in the astronaut corps.

RATLEY: I was greatly disappointed that we did not go on. I had already quit my job. I kept hoping for the best, that the program would be reinstated. I just, you know, for every door that closes two more will open. So I just went on with my life.

GWIN: And another door did open, just not for the Americans.

JAGGARD: Unfortunately for the U.S. what happened next is Soviets beat us to the punch. Valentina Tereschkova in 1963, which is not long after the program had died, became the first woman to go to space.


GWIN: Unlike the women Lovelace tested, Valentina Tereschkova hadn’t spent thousands of hours in a cockpit. The Soviets had heard about the Lovelace program, and they wanted to be the first to send a woman into space. So they trained her to fly, and made her a cosmonaut.

RATLEY: We were very happy for her. We were sorry that it was not an American woman but we were happy that a woman finally made it into space.

GWIN: But NASA hardly noticed. The U.S. was headed for the moon. NASA spent all of its money and resources to reach that goal, and there wasn’t room for anything else. It was decades before an American woman blasted off into space.

JAGGARD: So 1978, NASA recruited its first new set of astronauts since 1969. First African-Americans to be recruited to the program, first Asian-Americans to be recruited to the program, and notably six women -- including Sally Ride who then became the first American woman in space in 1983.

GWIN: By then, NASA had changed the requirements. The astronauts didn’t all have to be military pilots. Sally Ride? She was a scientist.

RATLEY: We were happy for Sally Ride too, who went up as a mission specialist. But we were pilots. We wanted to sit up front and we wanted to sit in the left seat.

GWIN: The pilot’s seat. It would take another decade for an American woman to sit there. In 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot the space shuttle. And a few years later, she was the first female commander of a shuttle mission. Wally Funk and Sarah Ratley both went to her launches.

FUNK: When the rocket's lifting off, I was yelling out into the crowd -- go! Go for all of us!

RATLEY: And so when Eileen Collins went up we felt that we had been redeemed. What we had done had not been in vain. That maybe we put the bug in someone's ear that we can crack this glass ceiling.


GWIN: And crack it they did, but it still hasn’t been shattered. NASA has sent hundreds of men into space. But only about 50 women. And a woman has never walked on the moon. Not yet, anyway.

Today, NASA embraces the Lovelace testing program as part of its history. Photos of some of the women pilots can be found on the NASA website and NASA has acknowledged that these women paved the way for future astronauts.

But that’s far from the message NASA was sending to women at the time.

JAGGARD: I like to think, you know, this -- it didn't work out and that's a shame. But this was a moment of them being able to say, hey look, there's somebody who is going to advocate for us. There are women who are going to advocate for each other and there is now scientific proof that we're just as capable. And I think that's very inspirational and continues to be very inspirational even now.

GWIN: After NASA shut down the Lovelace program, Sarah Ratley became an accountant. That paid the bills so she could keep flying for fun.

At eighty-five years young, Sarah still flies and she still gets questions about the Lovelace program. Recently, at an air race, she met some college-aged pilots.

RATLEY: Several of the girls said to me, you were my role model. And I thought, me, a role model? I think it's the idea of being a pioneer. Of trying to do something different to bring a better life and a bit more hopes to more women. I think that's why they still latch on to the story because women weren't doing things like that in those days and someone had to lead the way.


GWIN: Because for Sarah Ratley and the other women, there’s only ever been one way to go: up.



If you want to know more about women in space, check out our show notes.

We’ve got a link to a story about why it might be a good idea to have more women than men on a mission to Mars. And you can find that link right there in your podcast app.

And while you’re there, be sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts. It really helps others listeners find us.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Jacob Pinter, Emily Ochsenschlager, Kristen Clark, Brian Gutierrez, and Robin Miniter.

Our editors are Ibby Caputo and Casey Miner

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes, with additional help from Nick Anderson, Jerry Busher, Burleigh Seaver, and Interface Media Group.

Special thanks to: Pineapple Street Media and to Margaret Weitekamp.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson manages our podcast team, and Susan Goldberg is our editorial director.

I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next week.

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