Kansas City native looks back with pride as pioneering female astronaut

Sarah Ratley is our Person of the Week

Kansas City's Morning News
June 01, 2018 - 5:56 am

Getty Images - Ronald Martinez

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When a group of young military men known as the Mercury 7 were among the most admired and best-known people in America, there was another team working just as hard, with almost none of the recognition.

Sarah Ratley of Kansas City was on that team, known as the Mercury 13, the subject of a critically-acclaimed documentary on Netflix

Ratley was among the women who were chosen in 1960 to train for spaceflight, just like their male counterparts.

"We went through the initial physical exams at Lovelace Foundation at Albuquerque, New Mexico," Ratley remembers. "This is the same facility that tested the male astronauts."

A famous feature in the book and movie "The Right Stuff," about the Mercury 7, is the battery of bizarre physical and mental tests that scientists designed to test the mettle of the prospective astronauts. 

"They put us through some crazy stuff," Ratley said. "They didn't know what to expect, but some of the girls exceeded the male candidates."

Ratley remembers being locked in a tiny chamber designed to induce claustrophobia. It was equipped with a panic button, which Ratley refused to press. All of the women passed the test.

Ratley was chosen as a Mercury candidate partly because she was working as an electrical engineer at AT&T. Males still dominate STEM professions, but women were even more rare in scientific fields in Ratley's day.

NASA required the candidates to have a four-year diploma, preferrably in a STEM field, plus 1,500 hours flight time in an airplane. Ratley met the standards, having majored in mathematics, with chemistry and physics as minors. 

"In a lot of my classes I was the only female in the class, but it was more fun that way," Ratley said.

Ratley started flying in high school. She joined the Civil Air Patrol, which provided her with opportunities and some funny stories. 

"We got to ride in the T-6's, in the back seat," Ratley said. "Nothing like wearing a parachute in a skirt."

The Mercury 13 women became very close in their time at NASA.

"We became more or less like a sorority," Ratley said. "At first the program was extremely secretive, but once we got to know one another, we would take trips, stay at each other's houses and have all kinds of fun."

Over time it became clear that the Mercury 13, qualified as they were, would never make it into space, like the men.

"We never really gave up hope," Ratley said. 

That hope remained even after two of the women went before congress to plea for greater opportunities for female astronauts.

"They found out women might even be superior," Ratley said. "We were smaller, we took up less oxygen, it wouldn't take as much stress to get us up in space, as much rocket fuel."

Ratley and the other women worked hard to break the glass ceiling, to open up opportunities they did not have. In the 60s there were no women in the military academies and women were not accepted as military pilots

Ratley recalls the pride she and her colleagues felt when women were accepted as NASA mission specialists on the space shuttle.

"We felt exceptionally good when Eileen Collins went as a pilot," Ratley said. "We felt then that we had been redeemed, that not all our efforts had been in vain."

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