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Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race [Hardcover]

Stephanie Nolen
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 15 2002
In 1959, the doctor who supervised the selection of NASA's first astronauts (all men) concluded that women—smaller, lighter and more tolerant of pain and isolation—might actually be better for the job. That doctor, Randy Lovelace, put 25 of the top female pilots in the United States through his tests, and finished with 13 superb candidates—many of whom had outperformed male astronauts such as John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Lovelace launched a secret woman-in-space program, and the 13 women started to believe they might lead their country into space.

But in 1961, the program was abruptly and mysteriously canceled. The women put up a fight, and won themselves a hearing before Congress. But John Glenn showed up to mock their efforts—and at the crucial hour, the women were suddenly betrayed by Jackie Cochran, the country's top female pilot and an influential politician in her own right.

Journalist Stephanie Nolen has tracked down the 11 surviving members of the "First Lady Astronaut Trainees," many of whom are still flying. Their leader, Jerrie Cobb, flies humanitarian aid missions to remote parts of South America. Janey Hart, 82, the wife of a key US Senator and a founder of the National Organization for Women, lives on a boat she sails solo in the Caribbean. And Wally Funk has trained at the Russian space centre and plans to go into space on a private charter.

Nolen tells the story of the secret program, the political and cultural climate that led to its cancellation and the remarkable women who were prepared to give their lives in the tense years of the early space race. Once promised the moon, some of the women still cling to the hope they will make that journey, even as they continue to live extraordinary lives on earth.


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It's hard not to feel indignation reading Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen's detailed account of 13 fearless, extraordinary '60s-era women known as the Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees, or FLATs. That's saying something, considering the women's story, as Nolen tells it, is one of remarkable strength, perseverance, and accomplishment. But it's also one of institutionalized sexism, false hope, and, ultimately, dashed dreams. Promised the Moon begins with the earliest, pioneering female pilots, tolerated largely to reinforce the notion that flying--not yet a mass commercial industry--was so easy, even a woman could do it. By the late '50s, the space race between the Soviets and the Americans was on, and Nolen captures the era's giddy sense of urgency. As the infamous Mercury 7 are feted by the nation, Albuquerque doctor Randy Lovelace decides to see how women hold up against men in space testing and, it is implied, in space. If their testing--privately funded by wealthy, influential female pilot Jackie Cochran--is the guts of the story, then the experiment's abrupt end and its impact on the FLATs is Promised the Moon's heart. Given that women of the time needed their husband's signature to secure a loan, it's hardly shocking that NASA was reluctant to hand the reins over to 13 women without formal military training which, it is pointed out at length, they were legally denied access to anyway. But what is surprising is how quickly the FLATs unravelled at the very point--before a Congressional hearing into the matter--when unity was paramount. Backbiting and betrayal, especially between Cochran and FLAT chief Jerrie Cobb, characterize the rest of the story, and one gets the sense that even though the women could complete with men in areas of physical endurance, the psychological makeup of these women really wasn't the right stuff. It's a point Nolen makes, but too late, and her analysis is missing amid her detailed interviews with the surviving FLATs and her exhaustive translation of countless government records. That said, Nolen's story is an important historical record and perhaps the clearest telling yet of the 13 women who fought mightily for, but were denied, the chance to serve their country. --Kim Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

In one of those strange coincidences that often occur in publishing, this is the second book this summer (after Martha Ackmann's The Mercury 13) to relate the little known but remarkable story of the 13 women who trained in the early 1960s to be Mercury astronauts, and though a slightly less satisfying effort, this is still compelling reading. These women passed many of the same grueling tests taken by the male Mercury astronauts, but they were opposed by virtually everyone in power at NASA. In addition to bringing many of the 13 to life, Nolen, a foreign correspondent for Canada's Toronto Globe and Mail, does an excellent job of describing the social context in which they operated. She explains that although institutional sexism and a strong antifemale bias among most players at NASA certainly existed, American society at large was not yet ready to permit women to be placed in the roles for which these women were training. Even many women felt this way, and Nolen explains how Jackie Cochran, one of America's best-known female aviators, spoke forcefully against sending women into space. Cochran's motives, according to Nolen, were complex; she didn't want to antagonize powerful male friends, she didn't want other women to overshadow her achievements and she felt that women weren't physically capable of performing such activities. Although Nolen interviewed 11 of the original 13, her material isn't quite as personal as Ackmann's. Nonetheless, this is impossible to put down and deserves widespread attention. 30 b&w photos.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars
3.0 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Great History of Women Aviators July 19 2010
Format:Paperback
A very rewarding read! This book made me realize how much women accomplished as aviators from the early 1900s to the 1960s. It's an in-depth, accurate look at their struggles, jobs, and personal lives.

I'm very perplexed at one reviewer's negative comments and "misrepresentation" posted here (did they actually read the same book?), including the inference that Margaret A. Weitekamp's work pre-dates this book (it doesn't - it came out around the same time).

In fact, Nolan's book doesn't make any claims that NASA was directly involved. It correctly describes the work of Dr. Lovelace and Jackie Cochran as independent from NASA, and repeatedly points out how, in the 1960s, newspapers and magazines like Life were enthralled with the idea of "female astronauts" and published stories about women like Jerrie Cobb. The book goes on to show how NASA responded at the time with a statement: "NASA says it never had a plan to put a woman in space, it doesn't have one today and it doesn't expect to have one in the forseeable future ... Any story that you may have read or heard to the effect that NASA is selecting and training girl astronauts just isn't true."

Much of the book is actually about the women's backgrounds in aviation, which made me appreciate how much history I had missed out on.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, fascinating story July 22 2004
Format:Hardcover
As a Canadian, for many years I have had the pleasure of following Ms Nolen's International journalism in the Globe and Mail, our country's national newspaper. In that same newspaper, I spotted a glowing review of "Promised the Moon" by Roberta Bondar, and it was then that I purchased the book and learned the little-known story of the Mercury 13.
Ms Nolen has certainly done her research. She has tracked down the surviving members of the Mercury 13, and told their story in such a way that even a space "layperson" such as myslef can understand the details. A fascinating, well-written piece of non-fiction by an award-winning journalist. Highly recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The new standard for telling this story. Nov. 27 2002
Format:Hardcover
Full disclosure: I am the daughter of Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen who was one of the FLATs (Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees) and so I am more than casually interested in this story. Plus I've met the author, so I'm going to be even less professional, and call her Stephanie!
Every student of the US-Soviet Space Race should have this book. The FLATs have had their story of thirteen women who passed the 1960's astronaut tests (famously described and pictured in "The Right Stuff") told in several media, but Stephanie's is the most thorough job. Her book is liberally sprinkled through with transcripts, letters, interviews, and other primary sources. She presents all sides of the issues, and is exceptionally fair to those who can no longer speak for themselves, especially Jacqueline Cochrane.
Stephanie does an excellent job drawing the reader into the late '50's and early '60's, painting what seems to be an accurate picture of that era. She lets the primary sources speak for themselves and generally comments just enough to keep the narrative going. For example: in my lifetime I have only known John Glenn as a somewhat liberal Democrat senator from Ohio, and part of the Keating Five. Stephanie ably describes how especially he was seen to be nearly a god during the Space Race. We've seen that before in books and movies, but Stephanie's book tells the story from these exceptional women pilots' perspective.
In a nutshell: this is a darn interesting story, and Stephanie writes well and had a good editor. An easy, fascinating read.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
I am perplexed by the misrepresentation that is presented about this book by the publisher in its advertising copy. There was never a NASA program, clandestine or otherwise, to bring women into the astronaut corps in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We can debate whether or not NASA leaders should have been open to appointing women astronauts, but the reality was that such an expansion of the astronaut corps never even crossed their minds at the time. Additionally, Stephanie Nolen was not the first to "track down" and interview the women who undertook physical tests identical to those of the Mercury Seven astronauts. Margaret A. Weitekamp's work on the subject predates Nolen's research. It was first presented in a dissertation at Cornell University, and is forthcoming as "The Right Stuff: The Wrong Sex: The Lovelace Women in Space Program" from Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004. It will be the authoritative work on this subject.
In addition, the story of the "Mercury 13," as some call these women, is pretty well known in the spaceflight history community. In 1960, Dr. W. Randolph 'Randy' Lovelace II invited Geraldyn 'Jerrie' Cobb to undergo the physical fitness testing regimen that he had helped to develop to select the original U.S. astronauts, the Mercury Seven. Jerrie Cobb became the first American woman to do so, and she proved every bit as successful in the tests as had John Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts. Thereafter, Lovelace and Jerrie Cobb began to recruit more women to take the tests, totally without NASA involvement. Jacqueline Cochran, the famous American aviatrix and an old friend of Lovelace, joined their recruiting effort and volunteered to pay the testing expenses.
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