Rhea Hurrle Woltman wanted to fly when she was growing up near Kimball, although being a farmer ranked pretty high on her wannabe list.
“When I was out on the farm,” she recalls, “we saw the same plane fly over every day. I wanted to fly, but my dad didn’t want me to. So, I had to move away to do it.” But first, she went to college. “After a couple of years, I was smart enough,” she chuckles, “so they sent me out to teach at a country school.”
Then she took the steps that would fulfill her heart’s desire, to be a flyer. And before her flying career ended, she’d held a commercial pilot’s license with single-engine and multi-engine land ratings, a single-engine sea rating, an instrument rating, and she’s both a certified flight instructor and ground instructor. She worked as a charter pilot, and has flown all over North America. Rhea also flew in the International Women’s Air Race and in the Powder Puff Race. And, had it not been for the prejudices of the time, she could have become one of the nation’s first women astronauts!
The year was 1961. The space race was gearing up, and a forward-thinking man named Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II of the distinguished Lovelace Foundation wondered if women were cut out to be astronauts. After all, he’d known that plenty of women since Amelia Earhart aspired to space and flight. So Lovelace asked Jerrie Cobb, a woman pilot whom he’d recently met, if she would be interested in undergoing the battery of tests he had designed for male astronauts. She jumped at the chance. Lovelace then asked her to recommend other excellent women flyers. Rhea Hurrle was one of them.
Lovelace wasn’t surprised that the women had passed the grueling battery of physical and psychological tests, just at how well they’d passed them, sometimes bettering their male counterparts’ scores. Nearly 50 women tested for the opportunity to join the space race. Thirteen passed. And Rhea Hurrle was one of them.
After the tests were completed, the next phase was the big one, where they’d begin actual training in Florida for space flight. The original date was pushed back, with telegram after telegram announcing subsequent postponements. Then, after events had unfolded in the nation’s capitol that would crush the hopes of 13 women anxious to serve their country in the space program, they received one final telegram. The program had been cancelled. Rhea received the telegram while she worked as a charter pilot. “When I got the notice saying it was cancelled, I still thought they’d bring it back. But they didn’t.”
From the beginning, Rhea and her sister flyers had been sworn to secrecy, but news of their endeavor came to national attention in 1963 in a Life magazine article about them and the first Russian woman astronaut.
That’s when her family first found out about her life as a pilot, and her ambitions to be an astronaut. Her mother and brothers later rode with Rhea but her dad never did. “But that’s okay,” she says, “I didn’t hold it against him.”
Jackie Cochran, another famous woman flyer of the day, had recommended Rhea for membership in the international women’s flying group known as the Ninety-Nines. After Rhea’s first husband passed away, she later married Leonard Woltman who had asked her to quit flying. “It was difficult to give up flying for me,” she says. Membership in the Ninety-Nines also ended.
In 2003, Martha Ackmann, a Mount Holyoke (Mass.) College professor of women’s studies, published her detailed accounting of this unheralded group of women. The Mercury 13, The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight was the launch pad that landed their story in the limelight. Two years ago, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh made the book part of their first-year orientation program. Ackmann hopes to expand the program to other universities. The story so impressed students and faculty that they decided to award honorary doctor of science degrees to the pioneering women. At the university’s commencement ceremonies May 12, a large group of Rhea’s family gathered to watch her receive long-overdue honors and acclaim. Ackmann gave the keynote address. Following it, university Chancellor Richard Wells told the audience that he hoped our nation would at last give recognition to the Mercury 13 women with a Congressional Award. Rhea speculates, “Who knows what will happen?”
These days, Rhea, widowed a second time, lives a full life. She enjoys family get-togethers back home with her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and their children. She makes her permanent home in Colorado Springs where, among other activities, she sets aside time to volunteer with the prison’s ministry program there. Rhea is also one of a few professional registered Parliamentarians in the country, a field she’s enjoyed for several decades. In that capacity, she works with the board of directors of major organizations such as the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association; in the mid-70s, she worked with the Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs.
Because of Rhea and the other pioneering women of the Mercury 13, a female astronaut finally sat in the left seat – the seat occupied by the pilot and commander – in the 1999 history-making space shuttle flight. In a sincere gesture of respect, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins invited all of the Mercury 13 women still living to the blastoff as her special guests. She’d felt these women should share in the celebration, since their earlier efforts paved the way for today’s female astronauts. “What if they had failed those tests?” she’d asked. “They gave us a history.”