Marjorie Dufton was an aviation pioneer and an inspiration to many. Photo Credit: The Dufton Family
by Emily Carney
Forever is composed of nows. – Emily Dickinson
I knew of Marjorie Dufton’s story well before her passing, years before the Ascension Flight. She was a titan among the early women aviators. Born on February 28, 1928, she earned her pilot’s license as a teenager, and her skill led to her becoming the youngest flight instructor in the United States. She competed in the Powder Puff Derby, a transcontinental, all-women’s air race inaugurated in 1947. She and her husband Ted, both flight instructors, moved to Arizona, where they established a successful crop-dusting business and had a son, Michael. During that time, the United States’ human spaceflight program began. The newly created NASA had recently selected seven men to its astronaut corps for its Mercury program, a one-person spacecraft that would eventually test America’s capabilities in low Earth orbit.
However, NASA excluded women from its astronaut program, citing women pilots’ lack of jet aircraft and test piloting experience (even though several women pilots had spent hours flying jets). Determined to prove that women were intellectually and physically capable of flying in space, Dr. Randolph Lovelace – who ran the clinic that gave the male Mercury astronauts examinations – began testing women pilots. Thirteen of those women passed these tests and earned the nickname the “Mercury 13.” Jacqueline Cochran, the blonde, glamorous Florida firecracker who became the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953, also supported what became known as the Woman in Space Program.
Marjorie was invited to the women’s space testing program and gladly accepted the invitation. From the moment the Mercury program was announced, she dreamed of the opportunity to fly in space. However, just as quickly as she received the invitation, she was informed that the program was disbanded; none of Lovelace’s women candidates, at that time, would fly in space. U.S. women did not fly in space until 1983 when NASA’s Sally Ride flew aboard Space Shuttle Challenger.
Dufton’s halted dreams were captured in two books: The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann, and Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program by Margaret A. Weitekamp. Dufton didn’t let this setback scuttle her aviation dreams – she eventually became one of the first computer programmers for Eastern Airlines. At Eastern, Dufton was able to fulfill her dream of traveling the world. By all accounts, her 92 years were joyous and full.
In 2021, a Blue Origin suborbital spaceflight fulfilled one of the Mercury 13’s dreams of going to space: at age 80, pilot Wally Funk became the world’s second-eldest space traveler.
And on May 24, 2022, another one of the pioneering women pilots of America’s early Space Age was ready to make her first spaceflight: Marjorie Dufton is one of the 47 brave participants aboard Celestis Memorial Spaceflights’ Ascension Flight.
Saying Godspeed, But Not Goodbye
Marjorie Dufton was a longtime hero of mine. I’d read about her in the books mentioned above; the Mercury 13 ladies and their fellow women pilots epitomized early 1960s excellence and glamour to me. Years ago, I met two of these pioneers, Gene Nora Jessen and Sarah Ratley. They made it very clear they were expected to pilot planes wearing dresses, pearls, and heels and laughed, telling me stories of a field that allowed them to be pilots, but didn’t quite allow them to enjoy the freedoms their male colleagues could.
The family of Alan Clive speaks during Celestis Memorial Spaceflights Ascension Flight memorial service. Photo Credit: Celestis, Inc.
So, meeting Michael Dufton, Marjorie’s son, was an incredible experience for me. I was grateful to be able to tell him what his mother meant to me, someone who found the women of the early Space Age inspirational. These are often untold stories and just as often mere footnotes in history. The Ascension Flight memorial spaceflight also closed a circle for Dufton’s family and friends; Michael expressed: “I’m excited. It's I also feel like it's a good closure. I know it's one of the few things that she wasn't able to accomplish in life, which she always wanted to. So, I think this is really a great opportunity for me to fulfill her last wish.”
Dufton’s flight was fittingly launching from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, the historic site that launched the first astronauts during the early part of NASA’s human spaceflight program – exactly where she would have launched from had she been part of the Mercury program. “I think, from a historical perspective, it's very appropriate that the space program has gone from where it was when she was initially going to be part of it to where it is today. [These rockets are] still launching out of the same facilities that they were back in the Fifties and Sixties, so I think she would be thrilled to be part of history and part of what's happening today,” enthused Michael.
Marjorie Dufton was one of many honored during the Ascension Flight memorial service, which took place on Tuesday, May 24. As mentioned before, Dufton lived 92 full years and accomplished (nearly) everything she set her mind to during her long lifetime. Unfortunately, many spaceflight participants’ lives ended far too soon. I’m no counselor, but I believe that whether a person dies young or lives a long life – and whether it’s because of natural causes, illness, or an accident – there’s still a tremendous sense of grief and sorrow when somebody who should be here is gone. And those who survive often struggle to find some meaning in grief.
Michael Dufton speaks about his mother’s upcoming spaceflight during the Ascension Flight memorial service. Photo Credit: Celestis, Inc.
While the memorial service was a highly emotional experience, I found the overriding mood to be one of eager anticipation because there was a mission beyond what the flight participants had experienced on Earth. Death can seem so final, but there was a sense of hope as the families and friends discussed their loved ones’ space burials, where they’ll enter eternal rest orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and be treated to spectacular orbital sunrises and sunsets every 45 minutes.
In Michael Dufton’s case, his decision to fly his mother aboard the Ascension Flight meant she could finally achieve her lifelong dreams: to fly in space and rest without restraint. In the words of a song by The The, “Love is stronger than death.”
The Astronaut’s Launch Experience
Astronaut Don Thomas knows what it’s like to be strapped into a spacecraft, waiting atop a launch vehicle loaded with explosive fuel. A four-time Space Shuttle flier, he spoke at the Ascension Flight memorial service about the mix of excitement and fear he experienced before his space launches:
You see the shuttle on the launch pad…it was so amazing just to stand there at the base of the rocket, all lit up…bright lights against a pitch-black sky. I stood there gazing up at it, and I had incredible butterflies in my stomach. A little piece of me was nervous. A little piece of me was scared, but my main emotion was one of the great excitement because I knew that 12 hours from when I'm taking this picture, I'm going to be on my way to space. I almost couldn't believe where I was and what I was about to do.
SpaceX’s Transporter 5 Rideshare Falcon 9 launch vehicle carrying the 47 Ascension Flight passengers is ready for launch on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Photo Credit: SpaceX
So, they bring the whole crew out on launch morning, maybe about three hours before liftoff. We took an elevator up…they strapped us into the seats one at a time. I was just hanging out waiting, and [the Shuttle entry technicians] called my name: “Don, we're ready for you.”
Thomas’ testimony of his pre-launch experience helped to set Celestis families’ minds at ease; even an experienced NASA astronaut experienced “butterflies” before his spaceflights. He then vividly described what Celestis families would experience during their loved ones’ space burial:
You're in for a great experience tomorrow. When they light the rockets, it will take 10 or 15 seconds for the sound waves to get to you, so it's going to be silent except for your yelling and screaming that's going to be going on – that would be the noise for all of you. Then you'll hear the roar of the engines, you'll feel the sound waves coming, and it'll just be spectacular.
About 10 minutes or so after the rocket launches, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket is going to come down and land. I saw the very first one that landed back here in Cape Canaveral…when it landed, I was about 10 miles away. You're going to be a lot closer than that. And when it landed, it was beyond the trees in the scrub. I couldn't see the actual landing. But as it went behind the trees, suddenly, there was a huge explosion. Boom! I thought, well, that thing just blew up. But it successfully landed – what I was listening to was a sonic boom. That took place probably 10 minutes earlier. It took that long for that soundwave to get back to me here on planet Earth. …That’s like a salute to your friends and family.
Not a 21-gun salute, but this is one heck of a salute on their final journey into space.
In this piece, some of Don Thomas’s words were derived from “Ascension Flight Astronaut Spotlight – Dr. Don Thomas,” previously published on our website. Don’t miss Part Three of A Day in the Life at Celestis, which will discuss the Ascension Flight launch experience. If you missed Part One, read it via this link.
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