by Tanya Lee Stone
I would bet that very few Americans today — of any age — will recognize the names of Jerrie Cobb or Jane Hart. They were, in fact, 2 of the 13 trailblazing women who, in 1959, began the same grueling battery of psychological and physical tests that the men trying to become members of the first cadre of astronauts did, hoping to prove that a woman or two should be among that first group. (In fact, in some cases the tests the women were given were more difficult than those the men took; the women were placed in sensory deprivation tanks, an ordeal the men never had to go through.) Now, in Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, Tanya Lee Stone attempts to give these women their due. Although the book is aimed at young readers (10 to 14), I found it fascinating and suspect many adults will as well. Stone covers all the important aspects of the women’s fight to be taken seriously as possible astronauts, including describing their backgrounds as test pilots, their superior test scores, the discussion among their (few) supporters within NASA and outside the space agency and those who were leagued against them, including then Vice–President Lyndon Johnson, President Kennedy’s liaison to NASA. It’s sobering to read Stone’s account of the Congressional hearing in which Hart and Cobb made their case for equal treatment for the women. This is a stirring, and ultimately sad story of hopes dashed and talent wasted. But in the end, I suppose, it’s more helpful to view Cobb, Hart, and the others as setting the stage for all the women who came after them, including Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman in space.