NASA Glenn honors female astronaut pioneers

CLEVELAND (AP) - Thirteen female pilots who were part of an early 1960s NASA research program to determine if women could qualify as astronauts are finally getting recognized in a place where some of the testing took place.

A new exhibit at the NASA Glenn Research Center displays photos and documents of the "FLATs," or Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees, an often forgotten chapter in America's space history.

"It's so amazing because this story has been silent all these years, and now all of a sudden we've become a little bit known," said Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen, 69, one of 11 surviving FLATs, as she toured the exhibit during Tuesday's opening.

In 1960, NASA invited 25 female pilots to undergo the same physical and psychological evaluations endured by male pilots who became astronauts for Project Mercury, the country's first manned spaceflight program. But the women who passed -- nicknamed the Mercury 13 -- were never officially declared astronaut candidates.

One of the tests at the Cleveland research center was designed to see if women could regain control of a simulated tumbling space capsule.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. The United States did not send a woman into space until 20 years later, when astronaut Sally Ride flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

The FLATs will be honored again this summer at the International Women's Air and Space Museum at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)