PW: How did you first learn about the women in the space program you write about in The Mercury 13
Martha Ackmann: I ran across an article in 1997, when it was announced that John Glenn would be going up for the second time, and way down in the fifth paragraph it said that a woman by the name of Jerrie Cobb was very interested in the program, since she didn't get a chance to go into space after she was tested for astronaut viability in 1961. I grew up in a family that was very interested in space. My father worked for the Department of Defense in mapmaking, which was charged with making maps for the lunar landing. When I read about Jerrie Cobb, I said, "Where was I?" That's the universal response when I talk about this story. I've even had people doubt that it happened.
PW: Although they failed to go into space, many of the 13 went on to achieve amazing things. How do you think this experience affected them?
MA: They now range in age from their 60s to over 80, and they see themselves as the ones who kicked open the door. Before them, nobody knew that there was a door. As for individual responses, Wally Funk tried and tried to get NASA to change their mind. She's the youngest, and even into her 40s, as NASA began to open the door, she was writing letters, and then finally said, "I'm not going to be able to get in this route, so I'm going to go around." Wally is scheduled to go up on one of these commercial space flights. Irene Leverton is out in Arizona now and is in her late 70s. People doubted or challenged the importance of what she and the other women had done so much that she began to doubt her own role in history. But since John Glenn's second space launch, their story has sort of resurfaced. It's a great irony that a man who played a large role in not encouraging the program to go forward has resuscitated interest in them.
PW: Did NASA cooperate with you in the researching and writing of this book?
MA: I did quite a bit of work at the NASA History Office in Washington, D.C. They were very, very cooperative. On the NASA Web site you can now see the story of the Mercury 13 told along with some of the early adventures of women in space, but I was dismayed to find the last time I was down at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum that the women aren't acknowledged there, and I didn't find them at the Kennedy Space Center at Canaveral either.
PW: What kind of challenges do women who want to become astronauts today face?
MA: Certainly the numbers would bear out that we don't have nearly as many women pursuing the career as men. That's because of attitudes about women in space and science and mathematics and, I would say, in daring occupations. That's not only located in the ideology at NASA, but all across the country, where it is still unfortunately assumed that girls don't have an interest in math and that being an astronaut is something too dangerous for them to pursue.
PW: You're a women's studies professor at Mount Holyoke College. Why did you decide to place the book with a mainstream publisher rather than a university press?
MA: Because I wanted to try to reach as many people as I could with it. Over the years I've become more and more frustrated with the language and the style of academic writing. Writing narrative nonfiction was wonderfully liberating and fun, and I'm never going back.