Current Issue / DU Alumni

A woman with wings

Alumna Sarah Ratley, a pilot, was a member of NASA's women's astronaut corps. Photo courtesy of Sarah Ratley

Sarah (Gorelick) Ratley is a Pioneer who has truly lived up to the moniker.

In the early 1960s, when the prevailing female occupations were wife and mother, Ratley (BS mathematics ’55) joined the first group of women to be part of the U.S. space program. Then 26 years old, Ratley was part of an elite group of women chosen to undergo rigorous tests to become astronauts — but who never actually got to fly in space.

“I reached for the stars and thought I had a chance to explore new frontiers,” Ratley remembers.

Ratley — who held a commercial pilot’s license and was working as an electrical engineer — was one of few women in the country who qualified for the space program. She had heard rumors about a secret program going on at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., while on tour in Europe with the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots. When she got back to the States, she received a call from Lovelace telling her that she was one of their candidates.

It was an exciting time, Ratley remembers. “We would go out at night, look at the moon and say ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be up there some day?'” She and her 12 teammates — dubbed “The Mercury 13” — underwent the same screening tests as the all-male Mercury VII crew that ushered in a new era of human spaceflight a few years later.

The tests were tough. One had doctors shooting ice water into the trainees’ ears, freezing the inner ear to induce vertigo. But Ratley just shrugged it off. “The tests didn’t bother me at all,” she says. “When you are young you can take anything. My mind was made up: I was going to pass.”

Although the women performed as well or better than their male counterparts, NASA scrapped the program a year later with no explanation. “The world just wasn’t ready at the time,” Ratley says. “In our age women were encouraged to become either teachers or nurses, not astronauts.” Ratley says she was extremely disappointed in the program’s cancellation, but she didn’t lose an ounce of her can-do spirit and continued to race airplanes all over the world.

Ratley’s interest in aviation was sparked in high school. Working in the Army Reserve records office on weekends, she sometimes got to ride in the back of a T-6. “The bug bit me and I started to take lessons,” she says. By the time she arrived at DU, Ratley had her own airplane. “I worked the weekends at the airport instructing, and I spent the summers airplane racing.”

Today she works full time as an IRS accountant and hasn’t slowed down. Is she still flying? “Oh, only occasionally,” she laughs, noting that she just got back from poking holes in the sky with an open cockpit, two-wing airplane.

Looking back over the past 50 years, Ratley is pleased to see the progress that women have made. “It is exciting to see that women are now allowed to pursue the careers they really, truly want.”

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