You may know that John Glenn was the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. You may also know that he flew aboard a space capsule with the call sign “Friendship 7.”
But did you know that women belonged to the team that propelled Glenn and “Friendship 7″ into orbit on Feb. 20, 1962? In fact, dozens of women worked on NASA’s Project Mercury, during a time when images of the “Ozzie and Harriet” 1950s were fresh in people’s minds, stereotypical images of women clad in dresses, heels, and frilly aprons waiting for their husbands to come home from work. But these women were better represented by “Rosie the Riveter” than Harriet Nelson.
Last month, 20 of those women attended the 50th anniversary celebration of Glenn’s pioneering flight, including Lucy Simon Rakov, 74, who trekked from Boston, Mass. to Cape Canaveral, Fla. for the commemorative event.
In an Associated Press article Rakov was quoted as saying, “Most of the women here are wives,” as she pointed out that Project Mercury’s women belong in a league of their own. “We weren’t secretaries. We were mathematicians.”
In her early twenties, Rakov helped design the computer program that the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission control team used to track “Friendship 7′s” movements during the just under five-hour flight.
Patricia Palombo, who now lives near Washington, D.C., also worked as a computer programmer on Project Mercury. Both Rakov and Palombo were just 24 years old when they participated in the groundbreaking venture.
“What we created was the first real-time programming system. We had to take in radar data from the radar stations “Â¦ and we did it with less computing than you have in your iPhone today,” Rakov said during a WBZ NewsRadio report from Boston, Mass., Feb. 20.
At an age when many of today’s youth use their phones to send numerous text messages a day, young women such as Rakov and Palombo used similar technology to launch Glenn into space, and they did so amidst the frenzy of the “space race” “â€ the race between the United States and the Soviet Republic to develop the technology to accomplish such feats as putting the first human into orbit. Although the Soviets sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April of 1961, these young women helped send the first American into orbit less than a year later.
Let’s take the occasion of Women’s History Month to applaud Project Mercury’s women, who endured the pressure of the space race and used the technology of today’s smart phones to help Glenn become the first American to circle the Earth. These young women blazed the trail that gives today’s young women the opportunity to choose either Rosie, Harriet, or both.