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Janet Christine Dietrich has died. In 1961, along with her twin sister, Marion, and eleven other women, Dietrich passed the same battery of physical tests as the men chosen by NASA to become America’s first astronauts. But Dietrich, and the rest of the so-called “Mercury 13” never flew in space—indeed, they were never allowed to complete their training.
Janet Christine Dietrich loved to fly. Born in San Francisco in 1926, she and her twin sister, Marion, were the only girls in their high school aviation class. At 16, Janet Dietrich had her student pilot certificate; at 20, she earned her license as a private pilot. In 1947, she and Marion won the first-ever Chico-to-San Mateo air race in California—defeating older and more experienced male pilots in the process. They also placed second in the 1951 All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race (aka the “Powder Puff Derby”). In 1960, Dietrich became the first woman to earn the FAA’s highest license, the Airline Transport Pilot License.
The following year, Dietrich was invited by Dr. William R. Lovelace II and pilot Jerrie Cobb to undergo the physical tests Lovelace had developed for NASA’s astronaut training program. Lovelace was interested how the female body would react to the same, and recruited Cobb. When Cobb passed all three phases of training, Lovelace decided to expand the project. In addition to more traditional physical exams, Dietrich and her Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees or FLATs (the name was coined by Cobb) were electro-shocked, pummeled with ice water, swallowed rubber tubing (to test their stomach acids), and worked to exhaustion on stationary bicycles.
Dietrich and twelve other women (from a group of 25) passed these tests. But only days before they were to arrive for further testing at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida, the program was abruptly canceled. Lovelace's experiments were privately funded (by pilot Jacqueline Cochran), and without the official say-so from NASA, the Navy refused to grant permission for use of its facilities.
Janet Dietrich continued flying until the death of her twin, Marion, in 1974. Photo by Albert “Kayo” Harris, 1957.
[San Francisco Chronicle]