The National Air and Space Museum Archives holds large digitized collections highlighting the contributions of high-profile women, ranging from aviators Louise McPhetridge Thaden and the Ninety-Nines to astronauts Sally K. Ride and Kathryn D. Sullivan.  There are also smaller collections, some containing just one to two documents, representing women whose experiences are just as important to telling the full story of women in aviation and space flight.

Mary Emily Rouse Molstad: Can a Pregnant Woman Pilot a Plane?

Mary Emily Rouse Molstad was 26 when she applied for a pilot’s license in 1951.  She and her husband, John Molstad, had been married since July 1950 and lived in Springfield, Colorado, a small town in the southeastern corner of the state (population 2000).  Molstad owned a Cessna plane and she hoped to be able to fly it in case of an emergency.  The Civil Aeronautics Administration determined that she did not meet the physical standards for a pilot’s license “because of pregnancy.”  She was informed that she could apply again “3 months after delivery.”

Letter sent to Mary Emily Rouse Molstad by the Department of Commerce, Civil Aeronautics Administration, regarding her application to obtain a pilot's license. The letter dated December 14, 1951, states that Molstad's medical certification is denied because of pregnancy. 

Molstad never went on to receive her license.  The letter from the CAA is the only document in the Civil Aeronautics Administration Medical Certification Denial Letter [Molstad] collection.  Currently, pregnancy is not a disqualifying condition for flying, though the FAA recommends that the pilot make their obstetrician aware of their activities and applicants may be counseled about flying during the third trimester.

Mary White Gaunt: Air Evacuation Nurse

Mary White enlisted in the US Army as a registered nurse in March 1941.  Prior to that, she had served for three years as the night supervisor at Midway Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The first scrapbook in the Mary White Gaunt Air Evacuation Nurse Materials documents her training at the Army Air Forces School of Air Evacuation and service in the United States in Colorado, Camp Grant, Illinois, and as assistant chief nurse at Truax Field, Wisconsin. 

“Camp Grant nurses at National Biennial Convention. Wearing new uniforms of blue, nurses from Camp Grant attend the National Biennial Nursing Convention at the Stevens Hotel.  Front row (left to right) – Audrey Slayton, Shirley Payne, Norma Knowlton, Mary White, Faye Brown, Marion Clify and Col. Julia O. Flikke (white uniform), superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps of Washington, D.C.  Rear row – Margaret Scofield, Dorothy Dumbleton, Evelyn Pedersen, Ruth Logan, Ily Lahti, Evelyn McNamara, Lillian Heikens and Jean Brink.”

White married Lt. Richard L. Gaunt in April 1943 and shipped overseas as a member of the 811 Medical Air Evacuation Transportation Squadron, arriving in Cottesmore, England, on January 11, 1944, “a cold snowy morning.”  The early photos in her overseas scrapbook are filled with memories of day passes with her brother Bill and photos of daily life in England.

Page from Mary White Gaunt Scrapbook. Caption:  “Ditching Procedure at Cottesmore—some got wet, but it was fun.”

 Later portions of the scrapbook are devoted to Gaunt’s flight nurse activities at the front.  By the end of the war, Gaunt had completed 99 combat sorties and 6 transatlantic air evacuation missions.  The collection also contains her two mission notebooks, where she documented for each flight aircraft type and serial number, pilot, arrival and departure information, passengers, supplied carried, and other notes.  She separated from the USAAF in February 1946 at the rank of captain.

Page from Mary White Gaunt scrapbook.  Caption: “Betty Theobald Blagen unloading her plane.”

During the 1960s, Gaunt was a nurse at Wilford Hall medical facility at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.  While there, she cared for astronaut Alan Bean, who later sent her a packet of photos and a note, in which he thanked her for her care.  He added, “The thing that impressed me most was the excellent attitude and personal relationship between you and the patients.”

Letter sent to Mary White Gaunt by astronaut Alan Bean following his post-surgery recovery at Wilford Hall medical facility at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where Gaunt was his nurse. The letter thanks Gaunt for her excellent care.

Jean McKay: Mercury Program Dietitian 

In April 1961, Captain Jean McKay was serving as the only dietitian in the Office of the Air Force Surgeon General in Washington, DC.  She enjoyed her “plum” assignment, which included responsibility for Air Force Medical food service around the world and frequent travel.  One morning she received mystery orders to leave for Cape Canaveral the next day for a top secret assignment.  She soon learned that she would be joining Project Mercury for its first human spaceflight the next week.  Although research and development for the pre-flight dietary guidelines had been done previously at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, McKay was responsible for planning specific menus from the basic guide, purchasing the food and supervising preparation and serving, and conducting nutritional analysis and reporting to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  Some of the highlights of the Mercury Project Dietary and Nutritional Guidelines [McKay] collection include documents from the Project Mercury feeding program, information about Whirlpool technology used to support feeding astronauts in space, and McKay’s memories of her time with Project Mercury.

Cover page of “PROJECT MERCURY Pre-space Flight Feeding Program.'  Twenty-five-page summary of a Project Mercury astronaut’s meal plan 96 hours prior to a space mission. The report includes information on a low-residue diet, menus prior to take-off, meal preparation procedures (recipes), market orders for low-residue menus, and a calculated nutritional analysis.  Page signed by astronauts Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton.

McKay was very aware of the role she was about to play in history.  She was privy to a closely guarded secret—the identity of the three possibilities for the first American man in space: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Gus Grissom.  She recalled their sly sense of humor about their scheduled meals.  One evening, she tried for some time to track down her missing astronaut dinner guests.  Finally, John Glenn stuck his head in asking: “We’re not very couth, but can we come in?” The three (plus physician Bill Douglas) entered with their pants rolled up, barefoot, carrying their shoes—“obviously choreographed.”

Air Force Missile Test Center's 'Certifying the Presence' authorization paper for Captain Jean T. McKay dated 5 May 1961. Card used at Cape Canaveral, Florida during the first launching of an American Astronaut into space.


On May 5, 1961, McKay attended the launch in which Alan Shepard became the first American man in space.  She was featured prominently, if inaccurately, in a photograph published in the next day’s Washington Post, captioned: “Astronaut Alan B. Shepard’s day began prosaically—with breakfast.  His nurse [actually McKay in her role as dietitian] in Shepard’s special quarters at Cape Canaveral is serving the meal as Shepard waits at left.  At right is John H. Glenn Jr. the ‘backup’ pilot for the flight.”  She later reflected, “I’m really thrilled.  This is the highlight of my military career.”

McKay returned to DC soon after, but not before another brush with celebrity.  While trying to find a flight back, she noted that there was only one other woman at the airport—Jacqueline Cochran, former director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).  McKay decided not to approach Cochran.  A few years later, when the women actually met for the first time, Cochran remembered she had flown to DC alone and would have gladly welcomed McKay’s company.

The collections of these three women—and many others—can be found in digitized format on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives.  Even more women’s collections can be reviewed through an in-person visit to the National Air and Space Museum Archives at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Related Topics Aviation Spaceflight Women World War II
Twitter Comments? Contact Us
You may also like Kathryn D. Sullivan: From Outer Space to Under the Sea “I am without identity”: Restoring the Names of Pioneering Women Aeronauts Women's Suffrage Stories in the Archives