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1971 Miss NASA.jpg

Miss NASA 1971 with the returned Apollo 8 capsule.

I came across a fantastic story about how the women who worked at NASA's Houston Manned Spacecraft Center - dig the ironic name - killed its Miss NASA beauty contest. You can skip to the bottom if you just want to read that small piece, but I couldn't help starting at the beginning of the space age - and the simultaneous atomic age - and giving the full story of the "Beauty Queens." As Stefon might say, it's got everything: Abbott and Costello, mushroom cloud outfits, hairdressing competitions, Operation Teapot, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and daylight savings time. With pictures you will not believe and might make you want to throw things at the screen.

Our story starts in the 1950s, shortly after Harry Truman created a vast testing site for atomic bombs as part of the Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range, known as the Nevada Proving Grounds (and becoming the Nevada Test Site in 1955). All those films of atomic blasts wiping away civilian houses that have become indelible images of our atomic past were made there. If the Proving Grounds proved anything, it's the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Nevada entrepreneurs immediately seized on the bomb as the symbol of the state.

The first example I have evidence for set the tone in stone: Nevada's First Atomic Bomb, an image that no one outside of the 1950s would consider inviting to tourists. Yet a photo in a newspaper displays a float with a sashed queen and her court in bathing suits, showing off Nevada's inviting winter weather in January 1951, seated in front of a mushroom cloud.

1951 Nevada's First Atomic Bomb

Mushroom clouds can be produced by any major explosion, but from the moment they first appeared under blaring headlines in 1945 they became the iconic symbols of atomic blasts. Nothing more needed to be said, no words attached. Rather than a crown, a mushroom cloud could serve as the headpiece for a smiling Las Vegas showgirl and every viewer in America knew what she represented.

The Last Frontier Hotel gave Candyce King the title of Miss Atomic Blast on May 8, 1952, the first of many such Nevadan girls with many titles. (I know that the caption says that it was the marines who "bestowed" the title on her, and if you believe that, every casino in Las Vegas is awaiting your presence. The hotel had been sold in late 1951 and the new owners undoubtedly sought every possible opportunity for publicity.) Her picture appeared in dozens of newspapers. And because you wouldn't believe me unless I showed it to you, her image at least once abutted that of Colleen Powell alerting readers to the upcoming change caused by Daylight Savings Time, perhaps the epitome of the trivializing and unnecessary pretty girl wirephoto.

1952-05-11 Candyce King, Miss Atomic Blast
1952 Daylight Savings Time girl, Colleen Powell.JPG

To untrivialize the models, I've scraped the internet to find as much as possible about the people behind the pictures. Though listed in the caption as an actress, King, née Rose Marie Morrison, had a long career as a dancer, first appearing as half of Candyce and King in 1947 with her partner and husband Arthur King. Candyce probably ditched Arthur at some point in the early 50s because he's never mentioned again, while she was featured solo in publicity pictures for more alluring products like Harry Winston's diamonds and the world's biggest valentine, and in 1954 as a featured headliner as part of the Skylets at the Mapes Hotel in Reno. The Fresno native dropped from the scene in 1955, when the "former chorine" married a Cadillac dealer in, where else, Fresno.

Next up was Paula Margaret Hamilton Davis, who was a mere sixteen when she rode a float in the 1953 Helldorado parade under the name of Paula Harris and the title of Miss North Vegas Atomic Bomb.  A later newspaper article reported that "The float belched smoke in a mushroom shape as it carried Harris. Its banner touted North Las Vegas as 'new and modern as the A-Bomb.'" No pictures are available.

1955 Miss Cue Linda Lawson

The military saw a good thing and belatedly got in the game, crowning the proverbial leggy chorus girl as Miss Cue. (No matter their age or status, the women in the pictures and their compatriots who might also be chosen were professionally and commonly referred to as "girls.") The odd title stems from those tests flattening civilian houses, part of the 14-test series known formally as Operation Teapot, publicized in a famous film as Operation Cue, and sardonically referred to internally as Operation Miscue when high winds forced a series of postponements. The pun was too good to pass up. Unidentified as late as 2004, the recipient of the mushroom cloud head-wear is now known to have been Linda Lawson, a star performer at the Copa, described contemporaneously as an "exotic brunette" and in 1956 as "the prettiest gal in the Sands Hotel line" when she made the papers frequently for dating a series of young playboys. Born Linda Gloria Spaziani, she also was still a teen when crowned in 1955, too young to drink at nineteen. She and the A-bomb both were featured when the nationally televised test finally succeeded on May 5. Lawson went on to a minor but long-lasting career as a television actress.

1955-05-05 Ottawa Citizen, Linda Lawson, Miss Cue

By 1957, the startling novelty of the atomic bomb was beginning to fade. When another showgirl posed for a picture, even the papers that printed the photo didn't take the blatant PR stunt seriously.

1957-06-17 Bucyrus [OH] Telegraph-Forum Lee Merlin

Notice what the caption doesn't say. Merlin wasn't the winner of a beauty pageant. She wasn't even a Miss or a Queen. She isn't called a showgirl, actress, model, or chorine. The mushroom cloud isn't a crown. Her choice purportedly depended on the opinion of a bunch of lewd and crude reporters thinking she was especially pretty. No wonder only a handful of small papers bothered to run the silly picture. So why in the world is Lee Merlin the most iconic of all the bomb beauties?

Because of this:

1957 Miss Atomic Bomb

Don English was a photographer for the Las Vegas News Bureau for decades. He took dozens of locally famous pictures that appeared in all the local newspapers and often got syndicated nationally. He not only chose Merlin as his subject but designed the cotton mushroom cloud bathing suit she wore. "We were shooting so many atom bombs, we tried to do anything that was a little bit different," he reminisced in 2005, just a year before his death at 80. Where this picture originally appeared is unknown and how it became the default pose is equally mysterious. Another alternate pose is credited to the Las Vegas Sun, where it apparently originally appeared. It may be superior in most ways we grade pictures - the mushroom cloud shows off more distinctly, it and Merlin are better centered, and her smile is lovelier - but it doesn't have the ineffable zing of the other pose's exuberant arm-flinging abandon.

1957 Lee Merlin

It also carries no identifying information. Whether English choose Merlin or a group of reporters made the pick is unknown. Almost as little is known about Merlin herself, even whether that's her real name. Robert Friedrichs, a scientist with the National Nuclear Security Administration, spent time in 2005 tracking the history of the person behind the photo. Some fellow Copa Girls remembered her as "very bookish," "very quiet," and with a "very dry" sense of humor, belying all stereotypes of chorines. She worked with them from 1954 to 1957 but never gave a hint of her earlier life and then "dropped off the face of the earth."

Newspaper databases provide nothing new since 2005, not a single "where is she now" or account of former glory. One tiny reference gives a possible clue. The small-town wireservice Central Press sent out an article in 1954 of a PR stunt that could only occur in the pulchritudinous otherworld of the Los Angeles/Las Vegas corridor. To promote Vegas' Hotel Sahara, artist-designer Irving Stone created an "animated" billboard on LA's Sunset Strip. Eight "exquisite girls" inhabited a ledge under a huge sign with the name of the hotel, sunbathing, taking dips in the tiny swimming pool, and calling attention to themselves by waving at the cars below. The stunt created the intended havoc. The accompanying article noted that the bathing beauties had already caused 70 bumper-to-bumper accidents. (If true, why didn't the police shut it down? Probably because truth and advertising are not the companions LA and Vegas are.)


Better fortune befell one of the girls. "Twenty-year-old model Lee Merlin was spied by a film producer and signed for a movie role the first week the billboard appeared." The IMDb contains no entries for a "Lee Merlin" so we'll never know how legit the offer was. Making the connection between this stunt and a career as a showgirl requires no major mental leap, though, and I feel comfortable pairing this Lee Merlin with the later one. 

The rise of the internet meant that all these atomic cheesecake photos have been endlessly resurrected. Merlin has achieved a possibly posthumous fame with more recent artists recycling English's pose.

Anahita Razmi did one in 2011:

2011 Miss Atomic Bomb photo by Anahita Razmi

Steven Liguori turned Hugh Hefner's ex-girlfriend Holly Madison into a bizarre Miss Atomic Bomb statue in 2012.

2012 Holly Madison Miss Atomic Bomb, photo by Steven Liguori
2012 Holly Madison Miss Atomic Bomb, statue by Steven Liguori

Perhaps most famous is the adaptation by Francesco Jodice, which was also used as the cover for the The Killers' single of "Miss Atomic Bomb."

2104 Killers Miss Atomic Bomb, photo by Frederico Jodice

Note the irony behind these pictures. No Miss Atomic Bomb pageant ever existed, under any name. None of the girls won any formal competition for such a title. Even Miss North Las Vegas used the bomb as a prop for a float, and since one contemporary article calls her a competitor for the title we can't even be sure she won. All the pictures emanated from Las Vegas, a city desperately trying to diversify its image from solely gambling, prostitution, and divorce to a patriotic capital facilitating the military's most advanced weaponry, saving America from Soviet oppression. The atomic misses were a small piece of a larger promotional campaign, flickering in and out of public consciousness. Their importance rests more on the realization that serious people wishing to tout Las Vegas as an attraction used this particular image over and over for most of the 1950s. They must have thought it worked and we must agree, however it appears to us today.

The history of rocket queens unfolds in remarkable symmetry to those of atomic fame. No actual pageants that I'm aware of ever were held with a space title; the girls paraded before the media were products of local PR efforts. The parallels allow some differences: the girls were scattered across country, the images persisted into the 1970s, and a host of photographers presented space themes without the bother of crowns or titles. The utter phoniness and blatant exploitation of the efforts fits right into the same niche, though, surprising mostly for the subject matter.

It starts when the stars came together for one of the greatest movie publicity stunts of all time. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, ever-famous for their Who's on First routine, were unlikely movie stars in the 1940s. They ranked in the top ten of box office stars eight times from 1941 to 1951, fading somewhat to 11th in 1952. Universal, their low-ranked studio more famous for its series of monster movies, cannily exploited the twin money makers by producing a series of films titled Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff; Meet the Invisible Man; Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and Meet the Mummy. The first was a gigantic smash, the rest trailed off into candidates for their worst films. Nevertheless, Universal milked every penny it could out of the pair by interspersing monsters with other limp gimmicks to ensure they turned out two films a year despite their visible aging, Abbott's reliance for obvious doubles for the physical slapstick, and Costello's bouts of rheumatic fever.

By 1953, the bottom of the barrel was being scraped. Since the boys were no longer guaranteed B.O., the geniuses in the script department decided to add girls. Lots and lots of girls. The publicity department didn't have to look far. The first Miss Universe competition was held in the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium, just outside Los Angeles, in 1952. The name had no connection to the studio - it was concocted by Catalina Swimwear following a 1951 bikini competition that was dubbed by the press as being for the title of Miss World - but the coincidence was too good to pass up. The studio announced that both Miss USA (whose winner would be a contestant in the larger pageant) and Miss Universe were to be awarded a long-term Universal contract. Moreover, the studio contracted short-term for all the girls from both contests and plotted what to do with them. Somehow Abbott and Costello seemed to be the answer.

Miss Universe Beauty Pageant 1952 ad

​​Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (ACGM) is a gag title - although intended for Mars, the rocket actually lands on Venus. Built on the success of 1950s' Destination Moon and its fleet of low-budget imitators, the film fitfully spoofed what were already science fictional cliches. Rocketship X-M, e.g., - a cheapie rushed out to beat the major movie to market - had the rocket set out for the Moon but wind up on Mars. The driving force behind the realistic Destination Moon was famed sf writer Robert A. Heinlein, whose cause to make space travel respectable wasn't helped by movie flacks who announced - to The New York Times of all places - that he was working on a satire called Abbott and Costello Move to the Moon. William Patterson doesn't mention this in his gargantuan biography and it's surely a flight of fancy, especially since his co-author was purportedly Ben Babb, head of publicity ("chief tub thumper") for the real picture. (Cue Chumbawamba.) The real and uncredited author, according to Bill Warren in Keep Watching the Skies!, was Charles Beaumont, not yet famous as an f&sf and movie writer. He worked in a lowly job in Universal's script department and tried submitting a spec script of his own only to be firmly rejected. Then, in a plot twist perhaps too movielike to be real, he was working the mimeo machine only to read the forthcoming script for ACGM and recognize it for his own work. Warren acknowledges this is a secondhand story, but notes the insider jargon like the use of "positronic," the word Isaac Asimov used to describe his robots' brains, something few Hollywood scriptwriters would have known. The interweaving of truth and fiction will continue.


Anyway, the scientists have built a secret rocketship in their backyard, it takes off merely by flipping a switch, magnetic boots overcome weightlessness, and a paralyzing ray gun is provided for protection. Sending it through the Lincoln Tunnel takes more suspension of disbelief and so does the almost instant flight to Venus, which is exclusively inhabited by, you'll never guess, women. They were billed as a horde of Miss Universe contestants, presided over by the statuesque Mari Blanchard, who just happened to have been the world's highest-paid swimsuit model in her youth. The Venusians are an advanced society, living 400 years, eating food pills, and testing strangers with extra sensory perception balloons and truth chairs. Need it be said that they travel through space in flying saucers?

Pardon another digression, but someone on the internet is wrong. Actually, everyone on the internet and in print sources is wrong about the claim that the Venusians were from the Miss Universe contest. Only a couple were, the rest being from the Miss USA pageant, which debuted a day earlier in the same Long Beach auditorium. The winner, Jackie Loughery, became Miss USA and represented the US in the Miss Universe pageant. She was credited in the movie, along with Ruth June Hampton (Miss New Jersey), Valerie Jackson (Miss Montana), Jeanne Thompson (Miss Louisiana), Judy Hatula (Miss Michigan), and Elza Edsman (Miss Hawaii). Renate Huy (Miss Germany) was a genuine Miss Universe contestant. So was, oddly, Jeri Miller, Miss Welcome to Long Beach. The winner of that pageant was to be "a tourism ambassador" for the city and received an automatic invitation to the Miss Universe pageant. (Here's some ultimate trivia: Most of these Misses had already been uncredited extras in a bridal scene in Mississippi Gambler, which was released two months earlier than ACGM.) Also in the cast was soon-to-be-famous Anita Ekberg. She is often mentioned as a Miss Universe contestant but she wasn't in the 1952 pageant. Wikipedia claims she was in an unofficial 1951 contest but I can't find any confirmation of that even in the claim's footnote. Other newspaper reports that a Miss Universe pageant was supposed to be held in Cairo in 1951 featuring various Misses from European pageants but fell through. Nothing connects Ekberg to this, either. Although many sources state that she was a Miss Sweden in 1950 they get the year wrong. She received huge amounts of press when was invited as a guest to the 1951 Miss America pageant as Miss Sweden, a crown she won that same year. She returned home but in June 1952 Universal signed her to a contract and lots of English classes.

Glad to get all those corrections out of my system. Hope you had fun reading them because they have next to nothing to do with the subject of space queens, while all that qualifies them for inclusion here are a series of publicity photos Universal released that have the girls decked out as contestants in a real Miss Universe - or at least Miss Solar System - pageant.

Abbott and Costello Go to mars promo

The internet also claims that Miss Earth was played by Anita Ekberg. You may believe that if you choose.

1953 Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, Miss Earth

With that series of digressions out of the way, I can double back to our subject of space age beauty queens. From the late 1940s to the launch of Sputnik those au courant with the latest hot technology didn't speak of rockets but of missiles, specifically guided missiles. The German V-2 rockets were second only to the Atomic Bomb as a breathtaking new technology and deadly weapon. After the U.S. rounded up virtually the entire German rocket establishment and set them up in the endless wastes of the American Southwest to test-fire missiles at whatever substitute for the Soviet targets they imagined were surely to come their way, the guided missile was culturally hot stuff.

How could the PR types resist? A syndicated Hollywood gossip column informed panting readers in September 1950 that actor Glenn Ford stopped in at the barbershop on the Naval Air Station at Point Magu, where he was filming a movie to be called The Guided Missile. What should be on its wall but a huge pin-up of his wife, dancer Eleanor Powell. The cherry on top was that the sailors had chosen her as "Miss Missile," because of the "rocket-like perfection of her dancing feet." This really happened! Or not, considering that the movie's actual title was The Flying Missile. (You may argue that they changed the movie title at the last minute. They did. From The Flying Fish.)

Nevermind the flub. I repeat: All publicity is good publicity. And for the rest of the 1950s, scores of newspaper articles faithfully reported the military choosing the girl of the hour to be their "Miss Guided Missile" or MGM. It certainly helped that, along the lines of Miss Cue, the pun on Mis-Guided Missile, a term found by the dozens in scorning headlines and comic commentary on the majority of tests that seemed to misfire, made the phrase stand out to the ear.

Stephanie Rich was MGM at the University of Utah's Military Ball in 1954 and "movie star" Wanda Curtis was MGM at the USS Norton Sound's annual dance later that year. Farther inland, Joan Schwartz, Miss New Mexico, was further named MGM for the Holloman Air Development Center Airman's Dance in 1955.

1956-07-03 Dee Hill, Miss Guided Missile

Nothing gives a clue to what MGM title Dee Hill might be competing for, but she was busy winning completions in and around San Francisco in 1957. At late as 1962, Mary Patricia Henderson became eligible for the Miss Mississippi competition by being named MGM at Columbus Air Force Base.


I searched the skies for any of these winners sporting an appropriate crown but the only one my radar ray beamed in on was this one of Linda Dooley, who won the MGM crown in a 1957 competition at the Cape Canaveral-area town of Cocoa, FL. The multi-talent Dooley was a member of the Cocoa First Youth Choir, drum major and student conductor of the Cocoa High Band, an actress in school pays, a representative at Girl's State, and president of the Future Nurses Club, just to list stuff from 1957 newspapers. She went on to the University of Indiana for more triumphs, including an invitation to the Brussels's Worlds Fair for her twirling skills, and then to Stetson University as a voice major. She married a fellow voice student and they warbled away for the next 55 years.

1957-12-15 Tampa Tribune 11-D Miss Guided Missile

Miss Guided Missile became the 1950s version of a meme, going viral and entering the national consciousness. The evidence comes from television, the young medium a petri dish for growing the tropes of white middle-class Americana. Comedy shows My Little Margie in 1955, The Bob Cummings Show in 1956, and an unsold Janis Paige pilot called Maisie, burned off on CBS's New Comedy Showcase in 1960, each used plots that revolved around the havoc caused by a MGM, the chaos of course stemming from the ubiquitous horndog men of 1950s television.

Perhaps no group of men are archetypically hornier than soldiers deployed far away from home, which is why USO troupes always included at least one sex symbol to arouse the troops. To cheers, whistles, and applause, that is. What did you think I meant? In 1958, that role was played by Siri, real name Maude Siri Maria Anna Blomberg. Variously 6'1", 6'2", and 6'3" in descriptions, she rose to fame in 1946 when 5'3" impresario Billy Rose made her the star of his Venus on the Half Shell revue. Her upswept hair and platform shoes enabled her to tower to a missile-like seven feet. Life magazine ran an article on them with the standard Mutt and Jeff photo, the kind of publicity coup that lesser flacks could only dream of. For the 1958 USO tour, in a pairing straight out of a proto-Mad Libs, she and former world champion boxer Barney Ross duetted on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby." Siri was billed as "Miss Mis-Guided Missile of 1958" and dressed in a "skin-tight silver-sprayed space suit." No word on what Ross wore.

Not an MGM, but certainly a first cousin, Utah got into the game again with a dual claim involving both atomics and missiles. Bomarc was the awkward acronym given to a surface-to-air missile produced jointly by Boeing and the University of Michigan Aeronautical Research Center. It was intended to contain a 6.5 kiloton atomic bomb and reach heights of up to 400 miles. The first successful test occurred in 1957.

Audrene Yates was a hairdresser in Layton, UT, near the Hill Air Force Base where the Bomarc saw testing. After she won a local competition that put her in the Utah State Beauty Operators contest, her husband, who worked on the base, suggested a "trendy" style. Yates used Fran Frost, an 18-year-old photographer's model, as her subject and recruited an Air Force captain's wife, Margaret Alger, to design a form-fitting black dress. The swirling hair atop the sleek black gown sufficed to “mimic the missile’s dark body and light nose cone," or, as the costume's official text hyperbolically soared:


Out of the space age we now bring fantasy into fact with a "Miss Bomarc." This guided missile hairstyle was inspired by the supersonic Bomarc missile. It's a swirl-a-wave which features supersonic action from nape to crown. From a siren list, it cruises to a froth of fluff swinging from cheek to tip of ear. The nuclear payload goes into super action and long-range swirls intercepted by flowing lines and high-altitude sweeps cruising toward its target of pixie bangs on the brow.

Yates won the state contest, which brought Frost to the attention of the Air Force. She was gifted with a sash proclaiming her the wholly imaginary Miss Bomarc, all that the wireservices needed to splash her picture nationally, something a hair-styling contestant never would have achieved.

1958 Miss Bomarc

Even more oddly, by the time Yates and Frost hit the news, the base was already accepting applications for their "Miss Missile" contest. Janice Nelson was crowned Miss Missile of Utah. She already held the title of Miss Air Power of the University of Utah, where she was a student, and was sponsored by the AFROTC. The military-academic community was well advanced in the western states where federal government money provided huge percentages of budgets and income.

Along the way to NASA, few enterprises showcased that connection between the military and the university more than the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. In the 1950s, JPL staff spent much of their time on missiles, both for defense and for the forthcoming space program. Producing the calculations necessary to plot space flights meant long tedious hours bending over calculators, jobs mostly filled by women known as computers, the highest level job available to them in the 1950s as JPL didn't hire its first female engineer until 1961. They're now known as the Rocket Girls through Nathalia Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, an homage to Homer Hickam's NASA memoir Rocket Boys. They started to make the news in 1955, not for their work, but for a contest to name MGM as queen of the employees' spring dance. (The caption under the picture in the Pasadena Independent [not shown here] calls them "girls" even though some of them are old enough to be mothers to the rest.)

The contest became an annual event. The winner got a luncheon and a parade as well as getting to represent JPL. The first MGM was Alane Hine, shown being crowned by JPL Director Dr. Walter Pickering. Despite the ages of some of the contestants, the contest quickly devolved into a beauty pageant, not a reward to female scientists. Hine was a secretary, the 1958 winner,  Billie Joan Gunther, a "19-year-old clerk stenographer." Still, Barbara Paulson, who took part in a contest, much later remembered it "more as a fun social event than a real beauty contest."

1955 Miss Guided Missile Alane Hine.JPG

Worse was to come. After the release of the 1958 Zsa Zsa Gabor movie, the title was changed to Queen of Outer Space in her honor. The contest lasted through 1970, when beauty pageants lost their 1950s' aura. The title continued to be awarded to a procession of young lovelies, with a 1966 description in JPL's house publication describing an entrant as if it were from a Playboy Party Joke.

This shapely craft, 5"6' in height, has undergone 21 years of dynamic testing and carries a payload of 120 pounds of well-designed equipment.

The JPL became part of NASA in 1959 - the change in the title's name is certainly coincidental.

NASA's Lewis Research Center in Ohio had a similar set-up for its female employees, giving them the title of Miss NASA starting in 1968. Virtually nothing is known about the winners or how they were chosen. The few pictures that have survived are demure shots of Miss NASA posed on equipment (like the one at the top of the page).

Miss NASA 1968 with an RL-10 engine:

1968 Miss NASA

Miss NASA 1970, on an Agena rocket float with the Lewis band:

1970 Miss NASA

And the last and only winner I can find a name for, Merri Fahnenbruck, Miss NASA 1973. Sadly, I can find zero additional information on her.

1973 Miss NASA Merri Fahnenbruck

Somebody down at NASA headquarters in Houston must have noted Lewis's contests because, also in 1973, the Employee Activity Association thought that electing a Queen and a Court to preside over July's second annual Lunar Landing Festival was a fantabulous idea. A long list of 48 employees were listed on the ballot, which described the Queen's duties. “The girl will reign over the activities at the LUNAR LANDING FESTIVAL held in downtown Houston. She will be required to attend the public coronation ball, social teas, and private parties connected with this social function.”

This was 1973. MS magazine had launched the previous year. Women's liberation was a slogan far more powerful than "let's preside over social teas." The women of NASA fought back, anonymously but subversively. Using the system of interoffice communications run by the female secretaries, they dispersed an alternate list of 45 male employees, from director Chris Kraft, down through astronauts and engineers. The flyer, which wound up on every bulletin board and taped to walls and elevators, made perfectly clear what the women were protesting: “Selection should not be based on merit. Vote for a pretty face & a good bod.”

Kraft went bonkers. He brought in armed security to track down the perpetrators and see if they could be criminally prosecuted. That had about as much effect as on any resistance movement. Another flyer was soon seen everywhere in the building. It proclaimed Gloria Steinem the winning King and Queen as a write-in candidate. And - as told in a wonderful January 1974 article in Texas Monthly, written by Prudence Mackintosh, Wendy Meyer and Beverly Lowry - appended savagely satirical cartoons and a statement so frothing with righteous anger that it probably could have fueled an Apollo.

“The wide cross-section of size, weight, color, religion, political views, sex and individual deviances represented by the winners of this contest dispense, once and for all, the blatant charges that have been laid at the doorsteps of Johnson Space Center—that its record of discriminatory practices is worse than any other NASA installation; worse than the aerospace community surrounding it; and possibly among the worst in the Federal government.” The note went on to apologize for the fact that they could not validate the accuracy of their tally due to impoundment of the ballots by NASA security forces. It closed with this: “Let us now, Kings and Queens, pledge ourselves to overcoming that immortal statement by Astronaut, Patriot, and National hero, James Lovell, which was reported recently in Playboy Magazine:


We fully envision that in the near future we will fly women into space and use them the same way we use them on earth—for the same purpose.


I've never seen a copy of the flyer but the cartoon caricatures survived. They are predictably vicious in their condemnation of the demeaning and dismissive ways women at NASA were treated:

1973 NASA protest cartoon 1
1973 NASA protest cartoon 3
1973 NASA protest cartoon 2

Not surprisingly, NASA seems never to have staged a beauty pageant after 1973. Nor did anyone else proclaim their local girls as Miss Guided Missile or Miss Atomic Blast. The times had changed. The glories of the Space Age plummeted in the public's eyes after the moon missions were abandoned. At the same time, the lessening of fears of war diminished the Atomic Age from a heroically battled existential threat downwards to nostalgic camp, as a later generation looked at fallout shelters and "duck and cover" film propaganda with wonder about what they could have been thinking.

Exploitation of female bodies did not vanish instantly, of course. In fact, the 1970s were a low point, as loosened censorship standards meant that newspapers and magazines could get away with showing more flesh than ever before, with both men's magazines and fashion magazines showing nudity on covers and in advertisements. Nevertheless, the  Miscellaneous Beauty Queen Age swiftly ground to an end. Beauty pageants appear to be eternal, even if Miss America finally abandoned the swimsuit portion entirely, but the internet appears to have killed cheesecake for cheesecake's sake in print media. Look back and laugh, through gritted teeth.

June 1, 2021

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