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

by Stephanie Nolen

Published by Penguin Canada

356 pages, 2002


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Fly Me to the Moon

Reviewed by Sienna Powers

 

The stories have been told and retold so often the edges have become smooth and comfortable. We've read about it, heard about it, seen things on television and at the movies. We know what the space race looked like. We've seen the images of men standing on the moon -- Armstrong and Aldrin and "Once small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." We've witnessed numerous versions of the Astronaut Walk: where two or four or six men walk fully suited -- and usually in slow motion -- towards their waiting craft. Men, though. We're always shown the men.

What those familiar images -- not to mention Armstrong's famous quote -- leave out completely is what could almost be called NASA's dirty little secret: The baker's dozen of women astronauts who trained for the space race. Dr. Randolph Lovelace II, the doctor who had selected the men who would become NASA's first astronauts, had determined that women were at least as fit as men -- if not more so -- for the rigors and constraints of space travel. Since women, Lovelace reported, were generally smaller than men, they took up less space and used less oxygen per minute. A space crew comprised of women would have to carry less oxygen and the physical space required -- plus the fuel to haul that payload -- could be less. Testing showed that woman could tolerate heat as well as a man and handle pain even better. And, since her reproductive organs were internal, a woman's risk from radiation damage would be lower. In 1959 at a convention for aerospace scientists, Dr. Lovelace announced that "We are already in a position to say that certain qualities of the female space pilot are preferable to those of her male colleague."

Lovelace began putting together a team of women -- the best of the best -- who came to be known as the FLATs: Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees. Unlike their male counterparts, none of the women had combat flight experience, but all of them were experienced pilots and many had more actual flight hours than the men chosen for the astronaut program.

When, almost before it started, the FLAT program was left flat, no one in the program fully understood why. It took forty years and a game Canadian journalist to unravel the secrets around the FLAT program: how something so promising and logical probably never had a chance of succeeding or even, literally, getting off the ground.

Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen -- author of this year's Shakespeare's Face, another book that looks closely at something that's been simultaneously under our nose and almost completely forgotten -- has expended considerable energy putting together the pieces that make the picture whole, likely for the very first time. Nolen approaches Promised the Moon through official and unofficial sources as well as the personal stories of the 13 women who didn't make it to space. And Nolen brings us engagingly through the mountains of red tape and politicking that the "astronette" program engendered. Her conclusions?

... it is nonetheless unlikely that the women would have realized their dream of spaceflight. In the larger picture, the women were grounded for one simple reason: they stepped outside the boundaries of the accepted roles for women in their time.

Herself a product of a more modern age, Nolen finds it difficult to imagine that such a relatively short period of time should have made such a huge difference. And yet...

When we look back at the pictures of women in the fifties and sixties, it all looks a bit quaint -- the beehive hairdos and the sweater sets. And it is tempting to see the story of these "first women astronauts" as a curious historical footnote: as The Right Stuff very nearly cast with female players. But, above all else, the story of these extraordinary women, who ignored traditional roles, defied convention and broke through barriers is a tale of the painful, destructive experience of being caught on the cusp of social change.

In Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race Stephanie Nolen tells that story in its entirety for the first time. | October 2002

 

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.