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Space Center Houston Honors Women Of Mercury 13

They never became astronauts but paved the way for women in space.

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Ochoa poses with members of the Mercury 13
JSC director Dr. Ellen Ochoa (left) poses with members of the Mercury 13 Gene Nora Jessen and Sarah Ratle (right). Also pictured is Jessen’s husband.

The name “Mercury 13” was coined in 1995 by a Hollywood producer in comparison to the Mercury 7, the very first group of NASA astronauts. The difference was that the Mercury 13 were never meant to fly into space. At the time, only military test pilots could become astronauts and women weren’t allowed to become fighter pilots.

Two of the surviving members of that group of women were honored during a luncheon at Space Center Houston, the official visitors center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

One of them is Sarah Ratle. She said she had never stopped believing that she was going to be an astronaut — even after the testing program was canceled in 1961.

“It was very much of a disappointment,” Ratle said. “But I believe for every door that’s closed, two more will open. But I was totally disappointed because I was looking forward to these new adventures.”

The program was privately funded by researcher Randy Lovelace, who helped select the first NASA astronauts through the same tests. Lovelace was interested in women’s capabilities for spaceflight.

Unlike Ratle, Gene Nora Jessen said she never expected to go to space. 

“I didn’t have any qualifications that I thought made me an astronaut,” she said. “I was a flight instructor in little airplanes, but had the opportunity to take these tests. I didn’t know where that would lead but it sounded like a great adventure to me.”

It would take 22 more years for the first American woman to fly into space.

The two women say this weekend’s events at Space Center Houston mark the first time they’ve been honored by NASA.

Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa, who spoke during the luncheon, called the Mercury 13 “true trailblazers in the aviation world,” who paved the way for women like herself in the space program.

Jessen and Ratle will speak during a presentation on the Mercury 13 Saturday (April 12) at 11:30 a.m. at Space Center Houston.

Space Center Houston luncheonSpace Center Houston honored members of the Mercury 13 during luncheon.

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