By Elizabeth Wroten
Nonfiction Review: Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone
On 12, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: What does it take to be an astronaut? Excellence at flying, courage, intelligence, resistance to stress, top physical shape — any checklist would include these. But when America created NASA in 1958, there was another unspoken rule: you had to be a man. Here is the tale of thirteen women who proved that they were not only as tough as the toughest man but also brave enough to challenge the government. They were blocked by prejudice, jealousy, and the scrawled note of one of the most powerful men in Washington. But even though the Mercury 13 women did not make it into space, they did not lose, for their example empowered young women to take their place in the sky, piloting jets and commanding space capsules. ALMOST ASTRONAUTS is the story of thirteen true pioneers of the space age.
A few years ago PBS ran a really good series called When We Left Earth about the US space program. It was very well done and incredibly interesting, but if you were left wondering where all the women were, here is your answer. Like When We Left Earth, Almost Astronauts was so interesting. These impressive female pilots underwent most of the testing that the male astronauts who actually got to go into space did. And they did better than the men. In fact the majority of people who worked with them thought they would be excellent candidates for the space program. But these women had an uphill battle. They were up against a wall of sexism that wanted to keep them in the home and keep them from making waves. There were undertones of racism, too. People worried that letting women into the space program would set a precedent that would force them to allow in minorities and so they didn’t want to open that door.
This is certainly nonfiction, but Stone does some leading and hinting that makes it sound like she has inserted some opinion. I’m not saying she’s wrong, but sometimes she sounds like she’s placing a lot of blame on NASA when sexism and misogyny were endemic to US culture. Women had uphill battles in all sorts of fields and really just getting into the workforce. Stone mentions on numerous occasions that women in the 1960s were not allowed to rent a car or get a loan without a man’s signature.
There are some really terrible revelations in the book and you won’t look at the space program the same way again. It took NASA until 1978 to admit women into the program and it wasn’t until 1983, when Sally Ride went up in Challenger, that women in the US were sent into space. (Russia sent their first woman up in 1963, TWENTY years earlier.) Several of the original astronauts (including some big names) were against allowing women into the space program. John Glenn and Scott Carpenter both testified against allowing women into the space program in a Congressional hearing on the matter. Glenn even made several jokes in poor taste and questioned their abilities. I would like to mention that Jerrie Cobb, the woman who underwent all the same testing as Glenn and surpassed him, had logged more 2,000 more flight hours than Glenn as well.
Not only are these women excellent role models for our girls (and boys!) they are a good reminder of how hard women fought for us so we could enjoy the relative equality we do today. There has been a lot of talk about the pay gap between men and women lately, but I think it’s important not to forget how far we have come. Certainly this book can have a wide audience. Space exploration and history is always a popular topic. But I think anyone interested in those topics should read this. It helps give a much more complete picture of that history.