When I was ten, I wanted to be an astronaut. I checked out books from my local library, I worked hard in my science classes, I visited the Kennedy Space Center, and I read a lot of science fiction so that if I ever ran into aliens on my mission to Mars, I'd be prepared. Reading this book made me realize how lucky I was to have grown up in an atmosphere where the abilities of women were respected more or less regardless of their gender. The same year I turned ten, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.
But back in the 1960s, aspiring women had no such role models; if they wanted young girls to understand that it was possible for women to perform just as well as men, they would have to become the models for future generations. In this book, Stone tells the story of the "Mercury 13," a group of thirteen women who fought tooth and nail for entrance into the space program decades before NASA let any women in. The combination of clear prose, firm social and historical grounding, and the detail-oriented nature of this account had me hooked from the beginning, opening a window into the history of women in space.
Stone portrays her facts convincingly, utilizing quotes from contemporary media sources like newspapers and magazines along with first-person narratives from the women involved and historical photographs. This combination of sources makes the experience of reading this book visceral, something you feel in your gut. This was particularly evident to me in the chapters where Stone describes in a play-by-play manner the physical and psychological tests that the Mercury 13 underwent in order to prove that they were just as capable as men. For a moment, I felt like I was in that isolation tank, or battling with my first experience of zero-gravity.
Throughout my reading, my emotions oscillated between shock at the unbelievable attitudes toward women that prevented the Mercury 13 from ever seeing space and horror at the realization that these events had occurred less than fifty years ago and are still supported to this day by a vocal minority. Although at times it was difficult even to imagine the level of discrimination that these women faced, Stone makes it quite clear that these women had the kind of boldness and courage borne of intelligence and self-respect that allowed them to continue fighting against these obstacles.
ALMOST ASTRONAUTS tells a story of courage against the odds, but also of a desire to expand beyond horizons, from the boundary of Earth's atmosphere to the assumed boundaries between genders. It makes a good source for a research report, but the clean and clear writing style makes it much more interesting and easy to follow than the average non-fiction work. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in space and the people allowed to go there.