“Patient No Longer”: Fighting for Representation in the Space Race

By Emily Mathay and Stacey Flores Chandler, Textual Archives Reference

JFKWHP-KN-C23637. President John F. Kennedy views a mock-up of the Gemini space capsule with staff from NASA and the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis, MO, September 12 1962. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite, and instantly sparked fear that the United States might be losing the Space Race. But in 1958, the U.S. government started Project Mercury, a program focused on human spaceflight that soon reached its own milestones: Commander Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, and Colonel John Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth a few months later. After these famous flights, thousands wrote to President John F. Kennedy, and their letters are now in the archives here at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (along with boxes of mail on hundreds of other topics).


Messages from people around the world in response to the flights of astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn. White House Central Subject Files, “Outer Space” series, Boxes 652-655, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Their messages cover some similar themes, from praise for the astronauts and scientists, to worries about powerful new technology and the cost of these missions. But scattered throughout the boxes are letters carrying a different observation about the space program: the astronauts known as the Mercury Seven all shared the same race, religion, marital status, and gender. Pointing out the cultural impact of the space program, some argued that more American communities should be visibly represented in it – and they wrote to the President to advocate for those who seemed to be left out.

The Mercury Seven at Langley Research Center, March 17 1960. Front row, left to right: Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; back row, left to right: Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. Image via NASA on The Commons, “Project Mercury” album. Photograph by Ralph Morse.

One of these writers was Dr. Frank Kameny, an astronomer who’d worked for the U.S. Army Map Service and hoped to become an astronaut. Like many civil servants in the wake of Executive Order 10450, Kameny was fired from his federal job in 1957 when his supervisors learned he was gay. His dream of contributing to the space program was ended; he would never work for the government or as a professional astronomer again. Instead, Kameny formed the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1961 and dedicated his life to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. He wrote letters to the President evoking Kennedy’s own words to argue for his community’s right to work for the U.S. government:

In my own case, extensive technical training – a Harvard Ph.D. in Astronomy – is going completely to waste…You have said: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ I know what I can best do for my country, but my country’s government, for no sane reason, will not let me do it.

Dear President Kennedy: I write to you for two reasons: 1. To ask that you act as a "court of last appeal" in a matter in which I beliee that you can properly act as such; and 2. perhaps much more important, to bring to your attention, and to ask for your constructive action on, a situation involving at least 15,000,000 Americans, and in which a New Frontier approach is badly needed. These people are our nation's homosexuals - a minority group in no way different, as such, from the Negroes, the Jews, the Catholics, and other minority groups. May I take the liberty of requesting that, because of the importance of this question to such a large number of citizens, this letter, and the enclosed material, depsite their length, be read and replied to by you personally, rather than merely by one of your aides. The enclosed US Supreme Court bried, written by me for myself, presents the entire story. The three sections headed "Questions Presented," "Statement," and "Reasons for Granting the Writ" present my case. The majority of the cases for the homosexual, generally, will be found on pp. 33-56 and, also, on pp 26-33. The petition was unforutnately denied by the Supreme Court on March 20, 1961. By well-establish precedent, this, of course, represents no judgment upon the merits of the case. In World War II, I willingly fought the Germans, wiht bullets, in order to preserve and secure my rights, freedoms, and liberties, and those of my fellow citizens. In 1961, it has, ironically, become necessary for me to fight my own government, wiht words, in order to achieve some of the very same rights, freedoms, and liberties for which I placed my life in jeopardy in 1945. This letter is part of that fight. The homosexual in the United States is in much the same position as was the Negro about 1925. The difference is that the Negro, in his dealings with his government, and in his fight for his proper rights, liberties, and freedoms, has met, at worst, merely indifference to him and his problems and, at best, active assistance; the homosexual has met only active hostility from his government. The homosexuals in this country are increasingly less willing to toleate the abuse, repression, and discrimination directed at them, both officially and unofficially, and they are beginning to stand up for their rights and freedoms as citizens no less deserving than other citizens of those rights and freedoms. They are no longer willing to accept their present status as second-class citizens and as second-class human beings; they are neither. Statistics on the sharply-rising numbers of homosexuals who are fighting police and legal abuses, less-than-fully-honorable discharges from the military, security-system disqualifications, and who are taking perfectly proper legal advantage of military policies and prejudices and draft-board questions to escape the draft, etc., etc., will, I believe, bear me out.
The winds of change are blowing. A wise and foresighted government will start now to take constructive action on this question. Your administration has taken a firm and admirable stand, and has an active interest in the maintenance of the civil liberties of minority groups, and in the elimination of discrimination against them. Yet the federal government is the prime offender in depriving the homosexual of his civil and other liberties, and in actively discriminating against him. May I suggest the homosexual is as deserving of his government's protection and assistance in those areas as is the Negro, and needs that protection at least as much - actually much more. The abuses, by constituted authority, of the person, property, and liberties of American homosexuals are shocking and appalling, and yet not only is not a finger raised by the government to assist these people, but the government acts in active, virulent conspiracy to foster and perpetuate these abuses. This is an area in which a sophisticated, rational, and above all, a civilized approach is badly needed. Short of a policy of outright extermination (and, economically, personally, and professionally, the government's actions are often tantamount to this), the government's practices and policies could not be further removed from such a sane approach. We are badly in need of a breath of resh air here, Mr. Kennedy - a reconsideration of the matter, divorced from the old, outworn cliches, discredited assumptions, fallacious and specious reasoning, and idle superstition. The traditional new broom, with its clean sweep, is badly needed. Under present policies, upon no discernable rational ground, the government is deprived of the services of large numbers of competent, capable citizens - often highly skille,d highly trained, and talented - and others are forced to contribute to society at far less than their full capacity, simply because in their persona, out-of-working-hours lives they do not conform to narrow, archaic, puritan, medieval prejudice and taboo. In my own case, extensive technical training - a Harvard PhD in astronomy - is going completely to waste, entirely as a result of the government's pratices and policies on this question. While the nation cries out for technically trained people, I, two years ago, as a result of the government's acts and policies, was barely surviving on twenty cents worth of food per day. Is this reasonable? You have said "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." I know what I can best do for my country, but my country's government, for no sane reason, will not let me do it. I wish to be of service to my country and to my government; I am capable of being of such service; I need only to be allowed to be so. Thus far, my government has stubbornly and irrationally refused to allow me to be so, and has done its best to make it impossible for me ever to be so. This is especially true, actually or potentially, of millions of homosexuals in this country - well over 10% of our adult population. Not only the society in which they live, but the government under which they live, have steadfastly and stubbornly refused to allow them to serve and to contribute. As you can see by reading the Arguments section (pp. 8 and 9) of the government's Brief in Opposition, enclosed, the government has very adroitly side-stepped the basic issues, and has completely avoided facing the major questions. This is quite characteristic of all past approaches to this matter. Action by the government on this question is needed in four specific areas
(listed here in no particular order) and a fifth general one. These are: 1. The law, and the mode and practices of its administration and enforcement, and the abuses thereof; 2. Federal employment policies; 3. the policies, practices, and official attitudes of the military; 4. security-clearance policies and practices in government employment, in the military, and in private industry under government contract; and 5. the education of the public and the changing of their primitive attitudes. No constructive ation has ever been taken in any of these areas. Yours is an administration which has openly disavowed blind conformity. Here is an unconventional group with the courage to be so. Give them the support they deserve as citizens seeking the pursuit of happiness guaranteed them by the Declaration of Independence. You yourself said, in your recent address at George Washington University, "that (people) desire to develop their own personalities and their own potentials, that democracy permits them to do so." But your government, by its policies certainly does not permit the homosexual to develop his personality and his potential. I do not feel that it is expecting too much to ask that governmental practice be in accord with administration verbiage. At present prominently displayed at the entrance to each of the Civil Service Commission's buildings is an excerpt from another statement of yours, in which you said "let it be clear that this administration recognizes the value of daring and dissent." I have demonstrated that I have the daring to register public and official dissent in an area wherein those directly involved have never before dared register such dissent. May I ask that my government show equal daring and dissent in coming to grips with this question in a proper and constructive fashion. Let more than mere lip service be given to laudable-sounding ideals! I can close in no better a fashion than by quoting Thomas Jefferson: "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and constitutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change wiht the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted im when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." His words could not be more aptly quoted in than in this regard. Let us, as we advance into the Space Age, discard the policies and the attitudes, the laws and constitutions, the customs and institutions of the Stone Age. I shall be more than merely pleased to have the privilege of discussing this matter with you by letter, by telephone, or directly, entirely at your convenience. I can be reached at the address at the head of this letter, or at the DC telephone numbers Columbia 5-4360 during most non-working hours, and Oliver 6-3600 during the working day. Thank you for your consideration of the matters presented here. I look forward to your reply. Most sincerely yours, Franklin E. Kameny

JFKWHCNF-1418-002. Letter from Frank Kameny to John F. Kennedy, 15 May 1961. White House Name File, Box 1418, Kameny, Franklin E. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Meanwhile, as both the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement made national headlines, letters arrived at the White House urging President Kennedy to choose the world’s first Black astronaut. Some argued that the selection would support American civil rights efforts, while others pointed out the potential boost to worldwide opinion of the U.S. Behind the scenes, the President’s aides asked the Defense Department to look into finding an African American astronaut candidate, and in 1962 the Air Force suggested a candidate for training: Captain Edward Dwight, Jr., a 27-year-old jet pilot with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

The military had been officially desegregated for fewer than fifteen years when Dwight arrived for astronaut training at the Aerospace Research Pilot School, where he later described facing “an incredible amount of social discrimination.” Dwight completed two phases of training and was one of 26 pilots recommended for a third round, but he wasn’t selected by NASA; he left the military in 1966 and later became a sculptor. There would be no other African American astronaut candidates during the Kennedy administration, and the Soviet Union would fly the first Black person – and the first Latin American – in space in 1980: Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez of Cuba.


Messages encouraging the President to select the first black astronaut for space flight, from the White House Staff Files of Harris Wofford and the White House Central Subject Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Women’s absence from American astronaut candidate pools didn’t go unnoticed, either – and one person wrote to the White House with a particularly personal interest in the topic: aviator Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb. Cobb earned her first pilot’s license at age 16 and went on to set world records for speed, altitude, and distance; at age 28, she was named the 1959 “Pilot of the Year” by the National Pilots Association. Cobb had logged thousands of air hours by 1960, when she and other female aviators were recruited for a privately-funded program that subjected them to the same physical, psychological, and technical tests that male astronaut candidates endured. Cobb passed them all, ranking in the top 2% of candidates of any gender.

In 1962, the Soviet Union launched two manned capsules into orbit at the same time, and Cobb sent a telegram to President Kennedy: “Hope in light of new Russian space achievement you will reconsider my request to discuss with you United States putting first woman into space.” Though she’d been appointed as a NASA consultant the previous year, her request was denied. She wrote again in March 1963: “I have not wanted to bother you with this matter but I can be patient no longer. It is a fact that the American people want the United States to put the first woman in space.”

Her lobbying didn’t convince the government, and Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova would be the first woman in space three months later. Cobb never went to space, but continued to fly for the rest of her career and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981 for her work piloting relief missions to South America. She noted in a 1998 interview, “I would give my life to fly in space…I would then, and I would now.”

March 13, 1963 Dear Mr. President: It is difficult to write this letter knowing it will be read by your secretaries and assistants and the chances are slim that it will get through to you. I feel compelled to do so anyway, in the faith that the matter will in some way be brought to your attention. Some of your staff are acquainted with my efforts to get the United States to put the first woman in space. For three years I have been working for this, including passing the three phases of astronaut testing. I have discussed this matter with Vice President Johnson and Dr. Welsh of your Space Council as well as many of our country's top space scientists. The reaction has been one of general acceptance: "why don't we do it; now, before Russia?"; "the scientific reasons more than justify the cost"; "what are we waiting for?" are typical of the response. That is, with all except the top echelon of NASA. James Webb appointed me a consultant to NASA over two years ago but never used my services. I have not wanted to bother you with this matter but I can be patient no longer. It is a fact that the American people want the United States to put the first woman in space. While NASA refuses, the Soviet Union openly boasts that they will capture this next important scientific first in space by putting their lady cosmonaut up this year. We could have accomplished this scientific feat last year, and even now, could still beat the USSR if you would make the decision. It need not even be a long orbital shot, or interfere with the current space programs; on a rush basis a sub-orbital shot would suffice or a X-15 flight to a 50 mile altitude. Any aerospace doctor or scientist will tell you the scientific data obstained from such an experiment would be of lasting benefit. Enclosed is a file of my correspondence with NASA, a scrapbook and several clippings. I have worked, studied and prayed for this over three years now and could not give up without one last, final plea to the commander-in-chief. Forgive me for taking up your time but I still believe the matter is of utmost importance, worthy of your serious consideration; and may the Lord guide you in your decision. I have the honor to remain your most obedient servant, Jerrie Cobb
JFKWHCNF-0515-002-p0059. Letter from Jerrie Cobb to President John F. Kennedy regarding women in the space program, March 13 1963. White House Name File, Box 515, “Cobb, J.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

It wasn’t until Dr. Sally Ride’s mission in 1983 that an American woman – and, as the world would learn after her death, a person who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community – left Earth’s atmosphere. Later that year, Dr. Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first African American in space. As we celebrate these and other iconic achievements in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, we’re also proud to preserve the records that document lesser-known fights for equal opportunities in the space program, and those who forged a path for the explorers who followed.

Additional sources:

Cobb, Jerrie and Jane Reiker, Woman into Space: The Jerrie Cobb Story, 1963.

Dwight, Edward Jr. Soaring on the Wings of a Dream: The Untold Story of America’s First Black Astronaut, 2009.

Long, Michael G., ed. Gay Is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny, 2014.

Paul, Richard and Steven Moss. We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, 2015.

Weitekamp, Margaret A. Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program, 2004.

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