From essay, “Liberty and Equality”
Mercury Seven by Ralph Morse, LIFE magazine,1960
The American space program was birthed in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Initially the space program was less about exploration and discovery and more of a competition with Soviets to gain the tactical advantage of space as well as an international stage on which to prove American exceptionalism and the the superiority of the American way of life.
In the American rhetoric, space was a new frontier, a vast land to conquer. President Kennedy said “I’m asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier”, romanticizing the space program in the context of American colonialism and the American Dream.
The Mercury 7 were the first group of astronauts chosen by NASA for the space program. The requirements for candidates included being under the age 40, military test pilots, having a bachelor’s degree and an IQ of 130 or above, and being physically and mentally “fit.” A member of NASA called them “premium individuals”.
The Mercury Seven astronauts and their wives came under intense scrutiny by the press. LIFE magazine paid NASA $25,000 per astronaut per year for exclusive access to the astronauts and their wives. Their assigned photographer from LIFE, Ralph Morse, was around them so much that John Glenn called him the 8th astronaut. In LIFE magazine, the astronauts were advertised as both courageous heroes and frontiersmen of space, but also as wholesome All-American men.
Many of the photographs and stories about the Mercury 7 in LIFE magazine played up the “boyscout” image. Film critic, Pauline Kael, called them “walking apple pies.” The astronauts not only exemplified square-jawed American heroism, but the press also associated the space program with the American rhetoric of individual freedom, opportunity and equality. In, The Astronaut; Cultural Mythology and Idealized Masculinity, Dario Llinares wrote, “Within LIFE, Cold War narratives were especially prominent, sharing ideological boundaries around sanctioned forms of national identity of which the astronaut was a perfect example.”
That women and people of color were not suited to be astronauts was a given. Since the American Revolution, America’s commitment to freedom, opportunity, and equality stopped short of extending it past white men. Vice President Lyndon Johnson said, to female astronaut hopeful Jerrie Cobb, “If the United States allowed women in space, then blacks, Mexicans, Chinese and other minorities would want to fly too.”
Jerrie Cobb was a member of the Mercury 13, a privately funded project to train female astronauts. The 13 women underwent much of the same testing as the Mercury 7 before they got shut down when the navy would not authorize their continued training. Jerrie Cobb had gone through the training alone first, so she was the only one to complete the program before it ended.
Just like NASA’s requirement that astronauts be military test pilots defacto forbade women from applying, the Mercury 13 requirements kept women of color from applying, as the discrimination they faced made it nigh impossible to meet that requirement of 1000 hours of flight experience.
All American by Heather Gray, 2015
In my piece, All American, I added four women to the Mercury 7, one white women, one black, one Chinese American, and one Native American. The white woman, Jerrie Cobb was part of the Mercury 13 program, the other women were also pilots. The photo manipulation for this one was the easiest of the three pieces, because I was just working with faces. As there were no color photos of the women I added I made the whole image black and white. I also did some effect work on the women’s faces, for example, adding noise to give them a grainy quality that matched the men.
The four women I included are as equally American as the original Mercury 7. And their inclusion in NASA’s space program would more accurately embody the American values of equality, opportunity, and democracy.
Jerrie Cobb’s list of aviation accomplishments is stunning but, after being denied participation in the space program, she devoted her life to flying supply missions to South America and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work.
Maggie Gee and “Millie” Rexroat were both WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) in WW2. Rexroat was the only Native American WASP, an Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota (site of the Wounded Knee Massacre), she joined the WASPs right after high school, took the dangerous assignment towing aviation gunnery targets, and, after the war, joined the Air Force.
Maggie Gee was one of only two Chinese American WASPs, were she helped train male pilots for combat. After the war she graduated with a degree in physics from Berkeley and worked at Livermore Labs on fusion energy, cancer research, and nuclear weapons design, and was active in democratic political organizations.
Janet Bragg would have been 53 in 1960, 13 years older than the upper limit requirement for the Mercury 7. Unfortunately, because of racial discrimination, there were nary a handful of African American women pilots in 1960. African American women faced the the double barriers of racial and gender discrimination. Janet Bragg’s story is not just one woman’s persistent battle for equality of opportunity, but, between the lines, we see the story of countless other African American women for whom racial injustice overpowered their goals and dreams.
What does All-American mean? Is it “represents all the most stereotypical ideas of America” or “all” Americans? Sally Ride and Mae Jemison proved that women are equally capable of being astronauts, although it is not clear that women’s capabilities were ever the issue.
When Jerrie Cobb went to congress to fight to give women the opportunity to be astronauts John Glenn testified, “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in the field is a fact of our social order.”
Those weren’t entirely the facts. Women had fought in American wars since the American Revolution. There were also female pilots and female engineers. They may not have been visible to Glenn, but he obviously knew of Jerrie Cobb and the Mercury 13. When given the opportunity to speak in favor of women in the space program, Glenn declined. Perhaps because he had never experienced any opposition to the American Dream of freedom, opportunity, and equality, he couldn’t envision how to apply those values.