Thursday, March 19, 2009

Almost Astronauts - 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

"July 1999

One woman stands alone, off to the side of the crowd."

Contents include: "T minus thirty-eight years" -- "I jumped at the offer" -- "Not a meaningful test!" -- "Mommy's going to the moon!" -- "It was too good to be true" -- "Regret to advise" -- "Let's stop this now!" -- "Jerrie Cobb isn't running this program. I am!" -- "The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes" -- "NASA never had any intention of putting those women in space" -- "We want to see a woman driving the bus, not sitting in the back" -- "I am living proof that dreams do come true."

Candlewick Press; 133 pages


Anonymous said...

The story of the women's activities and thoughts is very well portrayed. My objection as a historian is that everything about the context is slanted to the point of falsification.

Symbolically, look on the copyright page, where the author admits that the term used on the cover, 'Mercury 13', and throughout the book, is bogus -- a 'misnomer', she calls it, not the word I'd use in a book aimed at children. who would understand better if the author used an age-appropriate vocabulary and just said 'fake'. Other designations, such as 'Lovelace-13', have been offered, and are much more accurate in their denotations and connotations.

The greatest historical atrocity in the book, as I see it, is the portrayal of all opponents of setting aside existing standards to let one or more of these women fly into space as bigots and racists and egomaniacs (the author's savaging of feminist hero Jackie Cochran based on some imagined mind-reading ability was particularly vicious). LBJ in particular is singled out for vitriol that has no factual basis -- he was opposed to changing standards to cater to any particular group, because he was concerned of where it would lead as additional demographic subsets began demanding equally preferential treatment. What he did about it -- sadly but not surprisingly not reported in this book -- was have officials find representatives of such groups and encourage assignments and training to raise their vitae to preset levels so there would be no hint of 'reverse discrimination'. This succeeded as early as 1967 with the selection for astronaut training of Robert Lawrence, an eminently qualified black Air force pilot and scientist. On page 98, she pooh-poohs the 1978 selection of woman and racial minorities as second-rate since "they were all mission specialists" -- not pilots. This is incorrect, and easily fact-checked if anyone had bothered: one of them, Fred Gregory, became the first black pilot-astronaut, mission commander, and ultimately top NASA HQ official, none of this mentioned in the book.

Equally horrifying is the treatment of the Soviet woman-in-space mission of Valentina Tereshkova on pp. 84-5. The idea that an American decision to fly a woman symbolically would have been a 'first' is a delusion since the USSR had decided as a matter of policy to be first with its women-cosmonaut, from a special group selected separately without any of the credentials of the male team, and consequently would have launched before any American scheduled woman's flight. The symbolism of Tereshkova's flight was hollow, as the subsequent lamentable chronology of Russian women in space (what few there were) as propaganda gimmicks shows -- despite the wide success of the gimmicks in convincing much of the world (particularly Jane Hart) of a 'false reality' of advantages women in the USSR were supposed to have had (but never did, and still don't). Comparing the subsequent achievements of American women in space to the actual -- not politically idealized -- history of Russian women (ten times fewer) demonstrates which approach was more advantageous to attainment of a more gender-neutral situation, but isn't the kind of bashing the book chose.

And the idea that the United States led the world -- aside from a handful of fool-the-gullible propaganda stunts from Moscow -- in this genuine, solidly-based shift in age-old cultural patterns doesn't seem to be the message the book wants to instill. Resentment and gender-bigotry drip from nearly every page. For some purposes, this approach may be understandable, and eminently useful, but it does not serve the purpose of true history.

See www dot thespacereview dot com slash article/869/1 and
www dot jamesoberg dot com slash 2007womenspacecraftcommanders_sta dot html

Mary said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous. They certainly give us a lot to think about!

Anonymous said...

Thinking about any book -- and judging its credibility -- is a big lesson for kids, so this book can help in that process. My name and email got chopped off the 'anonymous' message I posted at the top of this thread:

jim oberg

jameseoberg at comcast dot net

home page

www dot jamesoberg dot com