I am perplexed by the misrepresentation that is presented about this book by the publisher in its advertising copy. There was never a NASA program, clandestine or otherwise, to bring women into the astronaut corps in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We can debate whether or not NASA leaders should have been open to appointing women astronauts, but the reality was that such an expansion of the astronaut corps never even crossed their minds at the time. Additionally, Stephanie Nolen was not the first to "track down" and interview the women who undertook physical tests identical to those of the Mercury Seven astronauts. Margaret A. Weitekamp's work on the subject predates Nolen's research. It was first presented in a dissertation at Cornell University, and is forthcoming as "The Right Stuff: The Wrong Sex: The Lovelace Women in Space Program" from Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004. It will be the authoritative work on this subject.
In addition, the story of the "Mercury 13," as some call these women, is pretty well known in the spaceflight history community. In 1960, Dr. W. Randolph 'Randy' Lovelace II invited Geraldyn 'Jerrie' Cobb to undergo the physical fitness testing regimen that he had helped to develop to select the original U.S. astronauts, the Mercury Seven. Jerrie Cobb became the first American woman to do so, and she proved every bit as successful in the tests as had John Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts. Thereafter, Lovelace and Jerrie Cobb began to recruit more women to take the tests, totally without NASA involvement. Jacqueline Cochran, the famous American aviatrix and an old friend of Lovelace, joined their recruiting effort and volunteered to pay the testing expenses.
By the end of the summer of 1961, twenty-five women had undergone the examinations at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The women came to New Mexico alone or in pairs for four days of tests. All of the women were skilled airplane pilots with commercial ratings. Most of them were recruited through the Ninety-Nines, a women pilot's organization.
Of those tested, thirteen women did exceptionally well and became known as the "First Lady Astronaut Trainees" or "Mercury 13." A few then agreed to undertake additional tests, and some believed that the further testing represented the first step allowing them to become astronauts, although there was never any intent of this on the part of NASA officials. Indeed, Mercury project managers were unaware of these tests.
When NASA officials learned about Lovelace's attempts for further tests from the Navy, which Lovelace had asked to undertake these tests at Pensacola, they told Navy flight surgeons that this was not a NASA project. The Navy then canceled the tests. Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart (married to U.S. Senator Philip Hart of Michigan) then began a campaign in Washington, D.C. to have the testing program resumed. On the July 17-18, 1962, Representative Victor Anfuso chaired hearings of a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics about this subject. Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart testified for the women. John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and George Low testified for NASA that setting up a special program to train women astronauts would hamper the effort to reach the Moon by the end of the decade. This ended the hearing and no women entered the NASA astronaut corps.
When Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, Clare Booth Luce published an article about the women in "Life" magazine criticizing NASA for not achieving this first. It included contemporary photos of all thirteen women. Of course, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, and in 1995 Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle. At Collins' invitation, eight of these women attended her launch.
In hindsight, one may criticize NASA leaders for not expanding the astronaut corps to women but there is no documentation whatsoever to suggest that there was even a consideration of doing so at the time. Perhaps John Glenn said it best when he remarked in recent years that the agency was reflective of its times. It is important to note, I think, that the first astronauts selected after the completion of Project Apollo--the class of 1978--did include women and other minorities, and therefore reflected the social changes experienced in the nation as a result of the women's movement.