The Washington Post

Hillary Clinton’s often-told story that NASA rejected her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut


(Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

This fact-check has been updated to reflect the rating change from Verdict Pending to Geppetto Checkmark.

“Now, some of you may know that when I was a little girl growing up in Illinois, I was interested in all kinds of stories about women. And my mother … actually told me about Amelia Earhart. And then when we decided, under President Kennedy’s leadership, that our nation was going to go to the moon and we were going to have an astronaut program, I wanted to be an astronaut. So when I was about 13, I wrote to NASA and asked what I needed to do to try to be an astronaut. And of course, there weren’t any women astronauts, and NASA wrote me back and said there would not be any women astronauts. And I was just crestfallen. But then I realized I couldn’t see very well, and I wasn’t all that athletic, so probably, I wouldn’t be the first woman astronaut anyway.”

— Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speech at event celebrating Amelia Earhart, March 20, 2012

“My dream was to be an astronaut when I was about 13 or 14 years old and the United States was starting its space program. So I wrote a letter to the NASA space agency and asked how I could become an astronaut. And I got a letter back saying that they weren’t accepting women. Now, I have to be very honest with you. I could never have qualified. But it was a dream, and I have been thrilled to see young women follow that dream and do so with such skill.”

— Clinton, town hall event at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Feb. 20, 2009

“I had always been fascinated by exploration and space travel, maybe in part because my dad was so concerned about America lagging behind Russia. President Kennedy’s vow to put men on the moon excited me, and I wrote to NASA to volunteer for astronaut training. I received a letter back informing me that they were not accepting girls in the program. It was the first time I had hit an obstacle I couldn’t overcome with hard work and determination, and I was outraged. Of course, my poor eyesight and mediocre physical abilities would have disqualified me anyway, regardless of gender. Still, the blanket rejection hurt and made me more sympathetic later to anyone confronted with discrimination of any kind.”

— Clinton’s 2003 memoir, “Living History”

“President Kennedy had just started the drive to the moon, and this was, like, in 1961, and I was, like, 14 or so. … So I wrote a letter to NASA and asked them what you would do to be an astronaut. I told them something about myself … and they wrote back and said, ‘We are not accepting girls as astronauts,’ which was very infuriating.”

— Clinton, quoted in a news article in The Washington Post, March 10, 1992

A story like this poses inherent fact-checking challenges neither Clinton nor NASA can produce the correspondence from 50-plus years ago and we know some readers will consider this endeavor a waste of time.

But we are in the business of sometimes going down rabbit holes, after all, so it seemed like a worthwhile challenge after many readers asked us to check it out. Besides, this story of Clinton’s first experience with gender discrimination has been woven into many of her speeches and interviews for more than two decades and she continues to tell it on the campaign trail:

So, on we went down the rabbit hole perhaps a black hole, to fit the theme to discover what we can.

The Facts

In May 1961, a month after facing a blow from the Soviet space program successfully sending the first man to space, President John F. Kennedy announced his goal of sending an American to the moon by the end of the decade. Three Americans abroad Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon.

Clinton, born in October 1947, would have been 13 when Kennedy announced the moon goal in May 1961. (She has said she was between 12 and 14.)

Neither the Clinton campaign nor NASA could produce the correspondence. But NASA spokeswoman Lauren Worley said the agency has “no reason to doubt its authenticity.”

“In 1962, the requirements for being an astronaut included being a military test pilot with a degree in engineering,” Worley said. “More than 50 years later, NASA’s astronaut corps reflects our nation’s diversity. The latest class of astronauts is made up of 50 percent women and 50 percent men.”

If NASA rejected Clinton because there was no astronaut program for women or immediate plans for one around 1961 or 1962, the response would have been consistent with the agency’s policy on female astronauts at the time, according to agency officials.

NASA officials supplied relevant research about the debate at the time over female astronauts — a contentious public policy issue in the years 1961-1964. In 1963, the Soviet Union’s Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova became the first woman to fly to space, yet the United States still had restricted astronaut qualification to men.

This excerpt from NASA research provides important context:

Dr. Randy Lovelace had been running (in 1960/61) a private screening program for potential women astronauts that was abruptly terminated in September 1961. That fall, there were many questions raised about why the program had been ended — with many fingers in the press and on Capitol Hill pointing at NASA. In the summer of 1962 there were congressional hearings on the topic.

What had actually happened in September 1961 is that Dr. Lovelace had tried to run further tests on his women astronaut aspirants at Pensacola Naval Air Station. (It should be noted that most of the women weren’t completely aware the Dr. Lovelace had no official backing for this effort.) Before committing resources to these tests the U.S. Navy asked NASA if this was an official program. Surprised NASA officials said no, and the Navy refused to let Dr. Lovelace run the tests at Pensacola.

In discussions between NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden and U.S. Navy officials that fall, Dryden’s position was that “NASA does not at this time have a requirement for such a program” but that it might investigate the possibility “at some time in the future.” This was the official policy on women astronauts and NASA response letters to women throughout the 1960s reflect this perspective.

(NASA officials note that Kennedy had just committed the United States to getting to the moon within the decade in May 1961, and in the fall/winter of 1961-1962 NASA was scrambling to focus on the goal. The issue of reexamining who was qualified to be an astronaut was seen at NASA as a huge possible distraction and a potential obstacle to meeting the president’s goal.)

A few years ago, a letter dated Feb. 26, 1962, surfaced on the online forum Reddit, apparently posted by a user claiming that his or her mother’s friend had received it. (The user’s account has since been deleted.) This letter is widely cited as proof that corroborates Clinton’s story. The Clinton campaign also pointed to this letter as generally lining up with the content and timing of her story.

The letter was written to “Miss Kelly,” a student at the University of Connecticut. The letter is signed by O.B. Lloyd Jr., then-director of public information, who wrote: “Your offer to go on a space mission is commendable, and we are very grateful. This is to advise that we have no existing program concerning women astronauts nor do we contemplate any such plan. We appreciate your interest and support of the nation’s space program.”

There is dispute among space historians as to the letter’s authenticity. NASA officials could not confirm the letter as official agency correspondence but said they had no reason to doubt its authenticity.

The “Miss Kelly” letter “remains tantalizing,” said James Oberg, retired rocket scientist and space historian who has researched Clinton’s story for many years. No letter of such kind from that period had surfaced previously, Oberg said. If NASA did send such letters bluntly rejecting girls, he said, it would have disappointed and angered girls and their parents amid contentious national debate over gender restriction in the astronaut program: “It defies belief, in my view, that not a single one of them wouldn’t have made its way to the New York Times” at the time, rather than surfacing 50 years later to fulfill modern recollections, he said.

A different 1962 letter that NASA released to Oberg contained a much more encouraging message — for a young male college student.

But others believe the “Miss Kelly” letter accurately reflects attitudes and NASA policies at the time. Dwayne Day, a space policy analyst, disputed Oberg’s arguments, saying the letter’s message is consistent with academic literature that shows “there was an internal struggle at the agency to figure out what to do about the messages NASA should be sending” about female astronauts.

In a book about women and the astronaut program, National Air and Space Museum space history curator Margaret Weitekamp wrote about this blunt, blanket attitude toward the possibility of female astronauts: “Given the military background of the leaders of the new civilian American space agency, many NASA officials simply could not conceive of women in the masculine role of astronaut. At a very basic level, it never occurred to American decision makers to seriously consider a woman astronaut.”

The Fact Checker reviewed hundreds of archived letters sent from the NASA public information office from 1964 to 1967 (the earliest years available for public review from the 1960s), and it found that the agency retained few letters sent in response to children and college students. We could not find any letters with the same tone or message as the 1962 “Miss Kelly” letter. The letters we did find showed that the public information officer was encouraging to both boys and girls who wrote to NASA:


(Courtesy of National Archives)

(Hat tip to archivists David Pfeiffer and Meg Hacker for helping us sift through NASA records.)

By 1970, NASA was much more encouraging. Marsha Ivins, then-freshman engineer at the University of Colorado, wrote: “My ambition is to become an astronaut (or whatever one would call a female astronaut), or, if that is not possible, to work somewhere in the astronaut training program. What I would like to know is if you think there will be a future for women in the space program, and if so, will Aerospace Engineering provide the best background or is there a better subject to study.”

Richard Slayton, director of astronaut training, responded: “Regarding your interest in becoming an astronaut, I believe your pursuit of an education in aerospace engineering is as good as any at this time. I do not envision needing additional astronauts for a number of years. The exact time when we would seriously consider women is indefinite, but I am sure it is inevitable. Therefore, you should continue your studies and do the best you can.” National Archives officials authenticated this letter to The Fact Checker.

Four years after the letter, Ivins was hired at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center as an engineer. She went on five space flights between 1990 and 2001, logging more than 1,318 hours in space.

[Update: After our fact-check published, officials at the National Air and Space Museum tracked down a verified NASA letter similar to the one that Clinton has described. Linda Halpern, who received the letter in March 1962, sent a copy to Sally Ride around 1983, when Ride became the first American woman in space. Halpern sent the letter to Ride and thanked her for breaking the gender barrier, on behalf of women who were denied the opportunity to become astronauts, according to Patti Williams, the museum’s acquisition archivist. Halpern grew up to be a tort lawyer instead.

The archivists found this letter a few months ago in Ride’s files. They selected it as one of the artifacts for the Sally K. Ride Collection, which opened at the museum in October 2015, to represent the significance of Ride’s accomplishment for women. (You can watch the collection’s archivist discuss Halpern’s letter at 37:40, in this video about the collection.)

Margaret Weitekamp, the museum’s space history curator, said both the Miss Kelly letter and this Halpern letter (which have similar messages as the Clinton anecdote) are consistent with the agency’s attitude toward the possibility of female astronauts in the early 1960s. NASA used similar language in both the Miss Kelly and Halpern letters.

“There was a real question at that moment, whether women can do this. NASA’s answer, which basically gets quoted in [the Miss Kelly] letter … is the answer that was largely given at the time: ‘There’s no existing program, nor do we contemplate one,'” Weitekamp said. The letter is below.]


Courtesy of National Air and Space Museum, Sally K. Ride Collection

The Pinocchio Test

According to NASA, archivists at the National Air and Space Museum and some space historians, the message in the response that Clinton claims to have received is consistent with NASA policy and the agency’s attitudes toward the possibility of female astronauts at the time.

We did not have a reason to doubt Clinton’s story, but we initially issued Verdict Pending in hopes that readers would help us get in touch with Miss Kelly or send us similar letters from 1962. NASA could not authenticate the Miss Kelly letter, which was the only such letter from 1962 existing in cyberspace that appeared to confirm Clinton’s account. (If you are/know of “Miss Kelly” — we still want to hear from you.)

After receiving more information from the National Air and Space Museum, specifically a March 1962 letter with a similar tone and message as the Miss Kelly letter and Clinton’s account, we decided the claim met the “reasonable person” standard. We award Clinton the rare Geppetto Checkmark.

The Geppetto Checkmark

 


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