Women in STEM Co-Chairs Introduce Bill Honoring Female Astronaut Pioneers
The bill introduction coincides with the 61st anniversary of testimony before Congress to support a program geared towards women.
Washington, July 17, 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Representatives Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), Young Kim (R-CA), Haley Stevens (D-MI), and Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) introduced the Mercury 13 Congressional Gold Medal Act. This bill recognizes the contributions of the first group of women, known as Mercury 13, to successfully complete the first phases of astronaut testing before NASA discontinued the training.
“Ever since I was a kid, Sally Ride has been an idol of mine. But we know glass ceilings are often cracked before they are shattered,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan. “Before Sally Ride became the first female astronaut, there were women before her to train and help prove that, yes, women were physically fit to go into space alongside their male counterparts. This bill recognizes those women, the Mercury 13, for their contributions to space exploration and the enduring human spirit to understand the universe. I’m enormously proud to lead this effort as the Women in STEM Caucus introduces its first bill.”
“The Mercury 13 were brave, talented women who rightfully earned their spots as the first female astronauts but were told they could not participate because of their gender. It’s past time we recognize their important role as trailblazers who paved the way for future generations of women in STEM,” said Rep. Young Kim. “As co-chair of the Women in STEM Caucus, I’m proud to help lead this effort to honor these women and show girls today that the sky isn’t even the limit to what they can accomplish. I’ll keep fighting to protect the American dream, expand opportunities for students, and ensure that future generations of Americans know they can do anything they put their minds to.”
“The Mercury 13 Congressional Gold Medal Act recognizes the women who paved the way for other female astronauts to shatter the glass ceiling at NASA,” said Congresswoman Haley Stevens. “Women have long been shut out of opportunities to make history. That is why it is so important to honor women who had doors slammed on them despite the overwhelming evidence proving those doors should have stayed open. The Mercury 13 Congressional Gold Medal Act is a tribute to this group of courageous women, and I am proud to join my Women in STEM Caucus Co-Chairs in introducing this legislation.”
“The American Space Race during the 20th Century gave hope and deep feelings of patriotism and pride to numerous men, women, and children around the country,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko. “I’m grateful to join my colleagues in the Bipartisan Women in STEM Caucus to honor the legacy of the women of the Mercury 13 program, who served our nation’s space program with distinction. May their memory live on and inspire countless young women to reach their dreams.”
All four Congresswomen are Co-Chairs of the bipartisan Women in STEM Caucus, and this bill represents the first piece of legislation introduced by the caucus in the 118th Congress. Reps. Houlahan, Lesko, and Stevens helped launch the Women in STEM Caucus in 2019. After the tragic passing of then Co-Chair the late Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), Rep. Kim joined the leadership team. In honor of the late Rep. Walorski, members of the Women in STEM Caucus teamed up with NASA last year to gift an Indiana state flag flown in space in her honor to her family.
Background on the Mercury 13 Congressional Gold Medal Act: During the late 1950s/early 1960s, with the US trying to out-pace the USSR in the Space Race, NASA’s Dr. William Randolph Lovelace was put in charge of developing a series of tests to determine physical and mental fitness for space travel. Dr. Lovelace ran his testing on male volunteers, looking for the most qualified would-be astronauts. Simultaneously, through private donation, Dr. Lovelace was separately putting women through these tests, with many of them qualifying for additional fitness testing based on his assessments. Some of these women even outperformed members of the selected Mercury 7 in the early phases of testing.
This program, dubbed FLATs (First Lady Astronaut Trainees) was cancelled in 1962 because, in the later phases of Dr. Lovelace’s testing, military and NASA equipment were required. Since FLATs was not a NASA sanctioned project, Dr. Lovelace was not allowed to use these resources for women. Two of the women, Jerrie Cobb and Janey Briggs Hart, testified before the House Subcommittee on Science and Astronautics to advocate for the continuation of their program on July 17 and 18, 1962.
The women who successfully completed the first phases of testing became known as the Mercury 13. This group of trailblazing women paved the way for women at NASA and female astronauts like Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. The Women in STEM Caucus would like to honor these women for their groundbreaking achievements by presenting the group with a Congressional Gold Medal, to be displayed in the National Air and Space Museum.
The bipartisan legislation is also endorsed by several organizations including:
“We commend Representatives Houlahan, Kim, Stevens, and Lesko’s efforts to honor the groundbreaking efforts of the thirteen women who partook in the FLATS program with a Mercury 13 Congressional Gold Medal Act,” said Interim Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, Janice R. Lachance. “At the core of AGU stands our commitment to building an inclusive scientific community, one which fosters innovation and growth while continuing to place emphasis on equitability. This bill will help to do just that by further inspiring future generations of girls and women in STEM.”
“On behalf of our more than 320 member companies who have all benefitted from the contributions of women in STEM, the Aerospace Industries Association thanks Representative Houlahan for her leadership in honoring the trailblazing astronauts of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program,” said President and CEO of AIA, Eric Fanning. “The Mercury 13 Congressional Gold Medal Act will ensure the momentous accomplishments of these women don’t go unacknowledged and inspire future generations to reach for the stars.”
“The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is pleased to support the Mercury 13 Congressional Medal Act,” said Dan Dumbacher, Executive Director, AIAA. “On behalf of the 30,000 aerospace engineers and professionals we represent, AIAA celebrates the accomplishments of the Mercury 13 astronauts, a group of talented and trailblazing women who helped advance aerospace in unique ways during a crucial time in history. We are in awe of their determination and dedication to their training, which has helped create opportunities for more women to pursue careers in STEM disciplines. The Mercury 13 showed us how aerospace benefits from the contributions of everyone, as we continue to work today toward the aerospace community better reflecting the diversity of society overall. AIAA urges the House to pass this important act.”
“The women test pilots who were part of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees Program were a vital part of NASA’s Mercury Project,” said 2023 President of IEEE-USA, Eduardo Palacio. “While NASA never chose these women for space travel, they paved the way for the generations of women to follow and engineers today still benefit from their work.”
“I’m excited to support the recognition of the lives, legacies, and contributions of these pioneering women who paved the way for the next generation of girls and women to pursue their dreams in Aerospace,” said Team of the Brook Owens Fellowship and The Space Gal, Emily Calandrelli.
The Congressional Women in STEM Caucus is a bipartisan group of Members dedicated to advancing the important role women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) play in boosting our economy, conducting groundbreaking research that leads to life-changing innovations, and furthering our nation’s scientific enterprise. For more on the caucus, click here.