FIGHTING FOR SPACE By Amy Shira Teitel, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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FIGHTING FOR SPACE By Amy Shira Teitel, Review

There's more to the Mercury 13 story than you may be aware, as Matthew Kresal finds out...
It was the dawn of the Space Age. The United States and the Soviet Union raced headlong into space, extending the frontiers of science into the heavens in the name of attaining Cold War glory. In the midst of that, another story was taking place. One that, in a different world, might have seen NASA engaged in an effort to make an American the first woman in space. It wasn't to be, however. It's a tale that has been of interest to generations of space historians and enthusiasts, including the historian and host of The Vintage Space over on YouTube, Amy Shira Teitel. Her latest book Fighting for Space illuminates the overlooked story of the women who might have been America's first female astronauts.

There's a decent chance going into this book that you might know the basics of the story. The "Mercury 13," as they came to be known later, were a group of women who passed the same tests as NASA's Mercury 7 astronauts did. Despite that, they never flew in space, regardless of a public campaign led by one of their number, Jerrie Cobb, that led to Congressional hearings. It was there the idea was shot down, in no small part due to the testimony of Jackie Cochran, a record-holding pilot and one-time leader of the Second World War-era Woman’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs). Cochran, then in her fifties, swept in like something of a Wicked Witch, wrecking the hopes and dreams of Cobb, her fellow pilots, and a generation of would-be female astronauts.

Or so the story goes.

In Fighting for Space, Teitel challenges much of that narrative. Like with her videos on YouTube's The Vintage Space channel, she proves to have both a knack for research while putting across both a compelling and informative narrative. In this case, she goes back to basics and takes apart much of the myths around the FLATs (First Lady Astronaut Trainees). Something which ranges from her examining NASA's involvement (or lack thereof) to how Cochran, rather than being the proverbial Wicked Witch, helped finance much of the medical testing that helped make the venture possible. The book also explores John Glenn, arguably the most famous of the Mercury 7 and whose testimony in those hearings has been seen as helping seal the women's fate, and asks how much influence it had. In doing so, Teitel reveals a much different narrative, one that presents more complexities. Ones involving the political fortunes of Lyndon Johnson, the direction of NASA's future after President Kennedy pointed them toward the Moon, and questions of media hype that are relevant nearly sixty years after the events she explores.

It's also a more complex tale because of its protagonists. As she does with the overall story, Teitel strips away some of the myth around the two women at the heart of this historical tale: Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb. A generation apart in terms of age but in many ways similar: self-made women who flew at a time when the field was predominately male, setting records while also pushing against bureaucracy and sexism. Both also had secrets in their pasts, ones which they did their best not to acknowledge. Yet, in the end, perhaps, it was how similar they were that brought them into conflict with Cochran's WASPs of the war era being an analog of Cobb's FLATs two decades later, but in a different atmosphere. Perhaps it's the latter, and the clash of visions between them, more than anything else, that kept the dreams women astronauts precisely that. Either woman would be an ideal lead character for a novel, and, through her tenacious research and prose, Teitel brings both of these remarkable women to life once more.

The story of Cochran, Cobb, and the dream of American women going into space in the 1960s is a story that isn't as well known as it ought to be. And, as it turns out, what we do know isn't the full story, either. Thanks to Teitel's excellent book, their story has now been explored in new depth, revealing new layers and brushing away the myths around them. In doing so, she offers a tale that is even more fascinating and complex than one might ever have imagined, and which should enthrall readers every bit as much as The Vintage Space videos do.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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