I have a secret: When I was a little girl, way, way back in the ancient 1960s, I wanted to be an astronaut. I followed everything and anything that had to do with Space, and that included watching Star Trek (yes, the original Star Trek, starring William Shatner, George Takei, and Leonard Nimoy). You may remember these guys for their later work, but I knew them when they were idols. But they weren’t my role models.
No, that went to a woman who wasn’t even sure she wanted to keep the part of communications officer on the show. Nichelle Nichols played Nyota Uhura and she was something else. A beautiful black woman in a role of responsibility on a space ship with a mission to discover. It simply doesn’t get any better than that. She told an interviewer that she had, at one point, wanted to move on to other roles, but in a chance encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King she learned something that had never occurred to her; he told her she had become a role model to little girls everywhere, and that she simply could not quit. King was compelling. Nichols stuck with the role.
If I’d been more of a history buff than a child wont to sit around and watch TV I might have admired Jerrie Cobb, Janey Hart or Wally Funk. All three were women who were part of a nascent and highly experimental program to see if women could become astronauts. They and several other women with aviation experience were invited by William Lovelace II to participate in Phase I astronaut physiological and psychological testing at his clinic, using the same equipment that had been used on the Mercury astronauts (all men).
Thirteen of the women (sometimes known as the Mercury 13, although they prefer the acronym FLATs, for Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees) passed all the tests in Phase I. Three women went through Phase II testing, and after passing, waited patiently for an invitation to Pensacola, Florida, for Phase III. At this point the women were beginning to get excited; perhaps NASA really did want women to fly in Space. Except the invitation never came.
Janey Hart and Jerrie Cobb testified to their fitness for Space flight before the U.S. Congress in July 1962, but to no avail. The United States was simply not ready for women to put their lives at risk by climbing in a capsule on the tip of a massive rocket and blasting into space.
Instead the country let its then arch rival, the USSR (now Russia) pick up the gauntlet. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, an expert parachutist, was launched into space with much fanfare barely one year later, in June 1963. She went on to positions of note in the communist party, and was last seen carrying the Olympic flag at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
I wish I’d known about these women as a child, when my father used to take me in our Mooney up to Titusville to watch the Apollo launches. He let me fly right seat, and even take the controls. When I was old enough, he bought me flying lessons. Because of that I managed to follow my dreams into aviation.
I never became an astronaut. Then again, I never stopped yearning for space.
Instead I became a cheerleader for others, from Sally Ride to Eileen Collins to Mae Jamison, Barbara Morgan and beyond. I turned up for numerous Space Shuttle launches, as excited as ever to watch each one thunder to the heavens. The astronaut corps today is a multiracial, multinational group; a lot like us. And opportunity? It’s still there. Hollywood is still inspiring kids, and good souls such as my father are still offering curious children a chance to fly.
Want to know more about upcoming events that are designed to inspire? Fly It Forward is happening March 2 through 8 in locations all over the world. Click here for more information.