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Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race

by Stephanie Nolen

Back in the early days of the Cold War, it looked as though the Soviet Union was going to completely dominate the Space Race – a state of affairs that American leaders knew would be bad for national morale. It would also have important implications for their nation’s military position should a war between the two superpowers break out. But although the Russians had put dogs and people into orbit around the planet, they hadn’t yet put a rocketship pilot – or, as they were beginning to be called, an “astronaut” – on the moon yet.

When American scientists started exploring the idea of landing a human being on the moon, they discovered that the handful of female airplane pilots who’d volunteered for tests were smaller and lighter and consistently scored better on the pain-tolerance and isolation tests that identified the ideal astronauts.

In Promised the Moon, journalist Stephanie Nolen chronicles the exploits of the 13 female pilots selected by a high-ranking NASA official to participate in a secret program to train female astronauts. Nolen tells the story of these women wonderfully, focusing on both the details of their personal lives and, more broadly, capturing the rampant sexism that prevailed in the U.S. space program and in society as a whole at the time. (Surprisingly, the legendary John Glenn, one of the great modern American folk heroes, turns up in Nolen’s tale as a leading anti-women-in-space advocate, and as something of a mocking bully, to boot.)

The story of these pioneering women is told in their own voices, the product of numerous interviews. Nolen has also done extensive research into both specialist space publications and popular fare like Life magazine. The end result is a superb snapshot of a little-known chapter in the history of technology and American history in general.