KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Decades ago, in the middle of the Space Race, Sarah Ratley was part of a small group of women now known by several names — from “Mercury 13” to “Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees.”
NASA simply calls them trailblazers.
For Ratley, a Kansas City area native, flying is freedom.
“It’s a wide, wide world,” she says. “You get things in perspective. If you really had a bad day, you can kick the rudders, and nothing happens.”
Ratley, 85, says she earned her private pilot’s license in 1950 and still flies. In the air, she feels “completely free.”
“You’ve got more of a proper perspective,” Ratley says. “You look down there and say, ‘how can that one little building cause so much trouble?’”
Wyandotte High School proudly touts Ratley as one of its graduates. She went on to earn a degree in mathematics at the University of Denver with minors in physics and chemistry, as well as taking engineering classes. She says she would have liked to make a career as a pilot but found it difficult.
“Women weren’t supposed to be commercial pilots or airline pilots in those days,” she says. “It was just continuously discouraging women pilots, so we stuck together and said the heck with it! Someone had to get the ball rolling and started to break that glass ceiling.”
For a moment in the 1960s, in the midst of the Space Race, Ratley thought not even the sky was the limit when she was asked to participate in the Women In Space Program through the Lovelace Foundation.
“I got a phone call from the Lovelace Foundation on a Saturday and they said, ‘Can you be here tomorrow?’” she recalls.
Dr. William Randolph Lovelace developed physical tests to select NASA’s first astronauts. Project Mercury was the United States’ first “man in space” program, but privately, the Lovelace Foundation gave a group of women those same physical tests.
“We were a bunch of women pilots who had dreams. We wanted to go where no one had been before,” Ratley says. “We wanted to go into space. We wanted to go into new frontiers and into new adventures.”
Ratley, then Sarah Gorelick, was one of 13 women who passed those same astronaut fitness tests.
“We were just trying to say, ‘Women can do this too. Do not hold them back because of their sex,’” she says.
And since no human had been in space yet, Ratley says those tests were intense.
“Testing was extremely excruciating,” she says. “It was the most thorough physical I’ve had in my life.”
She remembers one test in particular.
“When they put that ice water in the ear to give you vertigo, they said, 'find a spot on the wall. Stare at that spot,'” she says, describing the test. “I think I was poked and probed in every single opening in my body.”
Even though the women were never officially a part of Project Mercury or NASA, the space agency still calls them trailblazers.
Ratley retired last year and now travels for speaking engagements, hoping to empower young girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and beyond.
“They can truly follow their dreams,” she says. “We tried to follow our dreams and kept pushing.”
It wasn’t until 1983 that astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. Then in 1995, astronaut Eileen Collins invited the women to see her take off as the first female to pilot the Space Shuttle.
“When Eileen Collins invited us to her launches, we were elated,” Ratley says. “It was a wonderful feeling.”
41 Action News learned in March 2021 that Ratley passed away. Her family told us they are happy her story continues to inspire others.