Mercury 13

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Jerrie Cobb with a Mercury capsule

The Mercury 13 were thirteen American women who, as part of a privately funded program, underwent the same physiological screening tests as the astronauts selected by NASA on April 9, 1959 for Project Mercury. The term was coined in 1995 by Hollywood producer James Cross as a comparison to the Mercury Seven name given to the selected male astronauts; however, the Mercury 13 were not part of NASA's astronaut program, never flew in space and never met as a group.

In the 1960s some of the women lobbied the White House and Congress for inclusion of women in the astronaut program, even appearing before a congressional committee. Clare Boothe Luce wrote an article for LIFE magazine publicizing the women and criticizing NASA.

History[edit]

When NASA first wanted to put people in space, they believed that the best candidates would have to be pilots, sub crews or members of expeditions to the Antarctica or the Arctic areas. They also thought people with more extreme sports backgrounds such as parachuting, climbing, deep sea diving, etc. were going to excel in the program.

NASA was then aware that droves of people would apply for this opportunity and sifting through applicants would be rigorous and expensive.. President Eisenhower believed that military test pilots would make the best astronauts. This greatly altered the testing requirements and shifted the history of who was chosen to go to space originally.[1]

William Randolph Lovelace II, former Flight Surgeon and later, chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, helped develop the tests for NASA's male astronauts and became curious to know how women would do taking the same tests. In 1960, Lovelace and Brig. General Donald Flickinger invited Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb to undergo the same rigorous challenges as the men.[1]

The program came to be because of Lovelace and his wife Jacqueline Cochran who helped fund the program. Lovelace became interested in beginning this program because he was a medical doctor who had done the NASA physical testing for the official program. He was able to fund the unofficial program, and invited up to 25 women to come and take the physical tests. Lovelace was interested in the way that women's bodies would react to being in space. It was often thought, during this time period, that women and men had entirely different biological makeups. Although the program was privately funded, the program was not private to the public eye. The Mercury 13 don't appear in any major publications, but they were not unknown. Cobb, already an accomplished pilot, became the first American woman (and the only one of the Mercury 13) to undergo and pass all three phases of testing. Lovelace and Cobb recruited 19 more women to take the tests, financed by the husband of world-renowned aviator Jacqueline Cochran. Thirteen of the women passed the same tests as the Mercury 7. Some were disqualified due to brain or heart anomalies. The results were announced at the second International Symposium on Submarine and Space Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden on August 18, 1960.[2][when?].

Candidate background[edit]

All of the candidates were accomplished pilots; Lovelace and Cobb reviewed the records of over 700 women pilots in order to select candidates, and did not invite anyone with less than 1,000 hours of flight experience. Some of them may have been recruited through the Ninety-Nines, a women pilot's organization of which Cobb was also a member. Some women responded after hearing about the opportunity through friends.

This group of women that Jerrie Cobb called the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) accepted the challenge to be tested for a research program.[1]

A story written by Wally Funk herself stated that throughout their secrecy being a part of Mercury 13, not all of the women candidates knew each other throughout their years of preparation. It was not until the year of 1994 that ten of the Mercury 13 were acquainted with each other for the first time.[3]

Tests[edit]

Since doctors didn't know what stresses astronauts would experience in space, tests ranged from the typical X-ray and general body physicals to the atypical, in which the women had to swallow a rubber tube so their stomach acids could be tested. Doctors tested the reflexes in the ulnar nerve of the woman's forearms using electric shock. To induce vertigo, ice water was shot into their ears, freezing the inner ear so doctors could time how quickly they recovered. The women were pushed to exhaustion using specially weighted stationary bicycles to test their respiration. They subjected themselves to many more invasive and uncomfortable tests.[4]

The 13[edit]

In the end, thirteen women passed the same Phase I physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed as part of NASA's astronaut selection process. Those thirteen women were:

Jane Hart was the oldest candidate, at 41, and mother of eight. Wally Funk, was the youngest, at 23.[1] Marion and Janet Dietrich were twin sisters.[5]

Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb passed away on March 18 of 2019. She scored in the top 2% of all space candidates, including those from Mercury 7. [2]

Additional tests[edit]

A few women took additional tests. Jerrie Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for Phase II testing, consisting of an isolation tank test and psychological evaluations. Because of other family and job commitments, not all of the women were able to take these tests, however. Instead, once Cobb had passed the Phase III tests (advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft), the group prepared to gather in Pensacola, Florida at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine to follow suit. Two of the women quit their jobs in order to be able to attend. A few days before they were to report, however, the women received telegrams abruptly canceling the Pensacola testing. Without an official NASA request to run the tests, the United States Navy would not allow the use of its facilities for an unofficial project.

It is sometimes claimed that Funk also completed the third phase of testing, but the claim is misleading. Following cancellation of the tests, she found ways to continue being tested. She did complete most of the Phase III tests, but only here and there as she was able, not as part of a specific program. Cobb passed all the training exercises, ranking in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates of both genders.[6]

Regardless of the accomplishments that these women reached while doing their medical and flight trainings in the Lovelace clinic; NASA continuously found ways to exclude the women from space excursions in the future. John Glenn and the male space community had a knack for making these women out to look like pests.

  • Nineteen women had taken astronaut fitness examinations by the Lovelace Clinic.[3]
  • Unlike NASA's male candidates, who competed in group – the women did their tests alone or in pairs. [4]
  • "A few women took additional tests. Jerrie Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City for an isolation tank test and psychological evaluations." [5]
  • The women passed these tests secretly while the nation was focused on John Glenn and Alan Shepard and other Project Mercury astronauts.[6]

House Committee Hearing on Sex Discrimination[edit]

Jerrie Cobb immediately flew to Washington, D.C. to try to have the testing program resumed. She and Janey Hart wrote to President John F. Kennedy and visited Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Finally, on 17 and 18 July 1962, Representative Victor Anfuso (D-NY) convened public hearings before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics.[7] Significantly, the hearings investigated the possibility of gender discrimination two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made that illegal, making these hearings a marker of how ideas about women's rights permeated political discourse even before they were enshrined in law.

Cobb and Hart testified about the benefits of Lovelace's private project. Jacqueline Cochran largely undermined their testimony, talking about her concerns that setting up a special program to train a woman astronaut could hurt the space program. Jacqueline Cochran had a large say in what the Mercury 13 were doing, and how much they were allowed to be involved in because she and her husband largely funded it. Cochran and her husband were connected to the program because they helped to fund it, and because they were close with the board of trustees. When Cochran was brought into the program in 1960, she wrote many suggestions for how the program should be altered. One aspect that she wanted changed was the age requirement, which would have allowed her to be an active member of the Mercury 13. It is possible that her exclusion from the team had effects on the way that she treated the women of the Mercury 13 going forward, which included her testifying against their participation in the popular space program. This conclusion can be made due to the fact that she threatened to pull funding when she realized that she was, in fact, not included in the final group that were planning to go to space. Cochran is portrayed by the media and the other women as being jealous at this time. Evidence of this can be seen by the fact that she wrote personal letters to each of the women supporting their work, except for Cobb, the face of the women's space program. All of these smaller events lead to the larger event, the House Committee hearing on sex discrimination. She continued to bring evidence forward that women would not be suitable for space training. For example, she proposed a project with a large group of women, and expected a significant amount to drop out due to reasons like "marriage, childbirth, and other causes". Her final statement came when she was asked outright if women should be in the space program. Cochran states "I certainly think the research should be done. Then, I can tell you afterward". Her testimony had a huge effect on the participation of the Mercury 13 in the space program. Although Cochran is most famous for being the first woman to break the sound barrier, she was a barrier for the women of the Mercury 13. NASA representatives George Low and Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified that under NASA's selection criteria women could not qualify as astronaut candidates. Glenn also believed that "The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.".[8] They correctly stated that NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees, although John Glenn conceded that he had been assigned to NASA's Mercury Project without having earned the required college degree.[9] In 1962, women were still barred from Air Force training schools, so no American women could become test pilots of military jets. Despite the fact that several of the Mercury 13 had been employed as civilian test pilots, and many had considerably more propeller aircraft flying time than the male astronaut candidates (although not in high-performance jets, like the men), NASA refused to consider granting an equivalency for their hours in propeller airplanes.[10] Jan Dietrich had accumulated 8,000 hours, Mary Wallace Funk 3,000 hours, Irene Leverton 9,000+, and Jerrie Cobb 10,000+.[11] This refusal to accept flying hours accumulated by the women was used by some feminist groups to support claims that the conflict had no basis in training or experience, but instead arose from social inequalities. Although some members of the Subcommittee were sympathetic to the women's arguments, because of this disparity in accepted experience no action resulted.

Executive Assistant to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Liz Carpenter, drafted a letter to NASA administrator James E. Webb questioning these requirements, but Johnson did not send the letter, instead writing across it, "Let's stop this now!"[12]

The Pilot Paradox[edit]

The qualifications for prospective astronauts had been a point of contention after the creation of NASA in 1958. The proposition for astronauts to have a background as a pilot was a logical choice, specifically test pilots with a disposition to train and learn to fly new craft designs. The consensus sought jet test pilots from the military, a field where women were not allowed at the time, and by default excluded from consideration. However, NASA also required potential astronauts to hold college degrees- a qualification that John Glenn of the Mercury 7 group did not possess. The requirement was waived for Glenn, hence allowing an environment that could have considered evaluating women for the same role. The larger issue behind this pretense, recognized by Glenn and the overall fight of the Mercury 13, was the organization of social order. Change was needed for women to be considered, but vehemently resisted in secrecy by those already benefiting from their gender-supported positions. Little to no support ever surfaced for the merit, strength, or intellect women possessed for the role of an astronaut, despite the evidence for the contrary.[13] Some obvious concerns for NASA during the space race included, but were not limited to, oxygen consumption and weight for the drag effect on takeoff. Women would in fact have been ideal for these cases.[14] After the undeniable success of their testing, the FLATs were no longer having to prove their physical and psychological fitness. They were pushing the 'social order' to convince NASA that women had a right to hold the same roles men were granted as astronauts.[14] It was not until 1972 that an amendment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1964 finally granted women legal assistance for entering the realm of space. By 1978, the jet fighter pilot requirement was no longer an obstacle for women candidates. NASA had its first class with women that year, but they were admitted into a new category of astronaut, the mission specialist.[15] See: Sally Ride

Social Considerations of the Hearing[edit]

Those opposing the inclusion of women in training as astronauts created an environment where women could be divided to possess the "virtue of patience"[15] or the "vice of impatience"[15] in terms of U.S. success in the space race. The space agenda of President Kennedy to put a man on the moon had specific deadlines and scheduled events, promising to accomplish something before the Soviet Union. Sexism in the United States during the 1960s had a large impact on the way that women were allowed to participate in the space program. The notable men who ended up going to the moons, were portrayed as heroes by them media, and acted as such when they returned home. However, the women that were the most visible in the space program faced harsh criticism of their work and belonging in space. There were many other women who had little to zero visibility in the public eye that did significant work in the space program. Some of those women are highlighted in the movie Hidden Figures. The names that became popular in American culture for going to the moon were not an exception to the cultural values of the time. The 1960s is included in the second wave of feminism, largely associated with women fighting for their right to be in the work place. John Glenn was a role model for girls and boys, alike during this time. There was an increased sense of optimism during this period of time. However, there was still a gap in the way they men and women thought about their hero. For example, Glenn was written many letters, fan mail, by American civilians. Much of these letters are spent commenting on his traditionally hetero-normative "masculine" traits, like bravery and strength. Glenn is noted for shying away from the direct support of women in the space program. His testimony in the House Hearing on Gender Discrimination is an example of the fact that he did not think equally of his female counterparts. There isn't much evidence of explicit sexism, however NASA was able to imply that they would not be allowing women into the program at that time. Often, NASA's stated reasons for employing people in the space program were certain qualifications, including the ability to employ traditional masculine gender roles. Despite the Soviet advancement to put the first woman in space in 1963 after Yuri Gagarin's orbit in 1961, the men who testified at the hearing were unmotivated. Any threat to the "patriotic chronology"[15] of the American schedule would be considered an "impediment"[15] or "interruption."[15] Women were forced to choose between remaining patient and missing out on substantial opportunities, or be blamed for losing the race.

Media attention[edit]

Lovelace's privately funded women's testing project received renewed media attention when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on June 16, 1963. In response, Clare Boothe Luce published an article[16] in Life criticizing NASA and American decision makers. By including photographs of all thirteen Lovelace finalists, she made the names of all thirteen women public for the first time. (Significant media coverage had already spotlighted some of the participants, however.)

There has been countless newspapers, films, and books made about the Mercury 13, but unfortunately has never found itself on the front page or front runner of any media network.[3]

The media often portrayed the women as those who are unqualified candidates due to their frail and emotional structure that implies that they cannot undergo the severity that men do. On the day of July 17, 1962, there was a hearing set in place regarding Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart testimonies. In further detail, Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, justifies the hearings and statements done by the two as well as the reporters and the press. Their testimonies make inquiries about the discrimination among women and that their talents should not be prejudges or prequalified due to the fact that they are not men.[13] The book included a photo of Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart at the witness stand that has made a huge impact on future women astronauts. [7][17] A scientific writer of The Dallas Times Herald went so far as to plead with Mr. Vice President Johnson to allow women to "wear pants and shoot pool, but please do not let them into space."[14]

In 2018, there was a documentary released to Netflix, Mercury 13 [8], that uncovers the stories of the thirteen women pilots that were precluded from NASA's space training programs. The documentary exhibits interviews, newspapers, and commentary from the women themselves. Cobb felt that her and the other women pilots were being cheated once Washington refused their proposal and insisted on shaking up the media's attention. The newspaper articles shown in the documentary were used to grab the media's attention and reinforce congress that this is something that must be done.[18] The documentary portrays the privately funded attempt by William Randolph Lovelace to put women into space. The documentary does not offer an official opinion from NASA on the Mercury 13, but NASA has not released much information on the group in general. The documentary raises questions about how to question the gender roles of society, and what can be done to advocate for change. The Mercury 13 are shown as proof that ideas about how women's bodies function are not entirely empirical, and in fact, largely political.

First American woman astronaut[edit]

Seven surviving FLATS attending the STS-63 launch.(from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman.

Although both Cobb and Cochran made separate appeals for years afterward to restart a women's astronaut testing project, the U.S. civil space agency did not select any female astronaut candidates until Astronaut Group 8 in 1978, which selected astronauts for the operational Space Shuttle program. Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 on STS-7, and Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle during STS-63 in 1995. Collins also became the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission during STS-93 in 1999. In 2005, she commanded NASA's return to flight mission, STS-114. At Collins' invitation, seven of the surviving Lovelace finalists attended her first launch,[19] ten of the FLATs attended her first command mission, and she has flown mementos for almost all of them. BBC News reported that if it wasn't for the rules that further restrained them from flying, then the first woman to go to space could have been an American.[20]

Collins on becoming an astronaut: “When I was very young and first started reading about astronauts, there were no female astronauts.” she was inspired while she was a child by the Mercury astronauts and by the time she was in high school and college, more opportunities were opening up for women who wanted a part in aviation. Collins then tried out the Air Force and during her very first month's training exercises; her base was visited by the newest astronaut class. This class was the first to include women. From then, she knew that, "I wanted to be part of our nation's space program. It's the greatest adventure on this planet-or off the planet, for that matter. I wanted to fly the Space Shuttle."[9]

Other notable influences[edit]

The first woman in space, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, was arguably less qualified than the FLATs having no qualifications as a pilot or scientist. Upon meeting Jerrie Cobb, Tereshkova told her that she was her role model and asked "we always figured you would be first. What happened?" [13]

Honors and awards[edit]

  • In May 2007, the eight surviving members of the group were awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.[21]
  • The Mercury 13 were awarded the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award in 2005.[22]
  • Jerrie Cobb was acknowledged in Clare Boothe Luce published article,[16] Life, enlightening her various flying awards and achieving four major world records.
    • In 1959, she established the world record for the long-distance nonstop flight and record of the world light-plane speed.[23]
    • In 1960, she was given the acknowledgment for the altitude record of a lightweight aircraft flown at about 37,010 feet.[23]

In popular culture[edit]

Literature about or referencing the group[edit]

  • "The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight" -by Martha Ackmann
  • "Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream" -by Tanya Lee Stone
  • "Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race" -by Stephanie Nolan
  • "Wally Funk's Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer" -by Sue Nelson
  • "Women in Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures (Women of Action)" -by Karen Bush Gibson

Past and current parallels[edit]

"Before Their Time"[edit]

Reflecting on the events of 1962 and the outcome of the Mercury 13, it was stated by astronaut Scott Carpenter that “NASA never had any intention of putting those women in space. The whole idea was foisted upon it, and it was happy to have the research data, but those women were before their time.” [13] The phrase leads to a significantly subjective but important question on if there is ever a right or wrong time for any group of people with a particular mission for success in matters social or otherwise. There also remains a question on how influential social order norms are still dictating the success of the completely capable, qualified, and dedicated groups of people that face discrimination or negligence for any reason.

Reflecting on the exclusion of women from training as jet fighter pilots, The United States Air Force explicitly would not test women for high-altitude flight for lack of pressure suits in the correct sizes. Their response to the initial testing of female astronauts was that women could not become astronauts "because they had nothing to wear." [14]

Recently, in the month of March 2019, NASA announced that there will be the first all-female space walk on the 29th located at the International Space Station. Anne McClain and Christina Koch were supposed to make history that day, however, things took a turn when there was a lack of spacesuit availability. NASA has reportedly had issues when it comes to spacesuit sizes claiming that they only come in medium, large and extra-large sizes. In the 1990s, NASA stopped making spacesuit sizes in small due to technical glitches.[27] This had a huge impact on women astronauts and later led to the cancellation of the all-female spacewalk on March 29, 2019. Rescheduling of this event is still in the works.

From the very beginning of the human space flight, the deck was constantly stacked against women. The first seven Mercury astronauts were commonplace names to anybody; but very few knew about the "Mercury 13" women.

See also[edit]

  • Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space
  • - It took a very long time for women to get into space after Tereshkova broke the barrier. There are several reasons for this and we are left to wonder why female astronauts were not selected in the first astronaut groups in the first place? One of the reasons was the process that NASA decided to use in 1958 when recruiting its Mercury astronauts.[11]
  • Valentina had become intrigued by parachute jumping while she was young. It was this epiphany and expertise in parachute jumping that created her pathway to becoming a cosmonaut. Tereshkova had worked in a textile-factory as an assembly worker as well as an amateur parachutist. She then was recruited to be a cosmonaut. Under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, four women were selected to be trained for a special woman-in-space program. Only Valentina Tereshkova completed a space mission.
  • Svetlana Savitskaya, second woman in space and the first to do a spacewalk
  • Sally Ride, first American woman in space

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Weitekamp, Margaret A. (January 28, 2010). "Lovelace's woman in space program". NASA History Program Office. Retrieved April 20, 2018.
  2. ^ "Space Medicine Association". Retrieved 2019-04-25.
  3. ^ a b Funk, Wally. "Our History Women in Aviation History 'Mercury 13' Story by Wally..." The Ninety-Nines, Inc. Retrieved 2019-04-17.
  4. ^ Anfuso, Victor L. "Hearings before the Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts". U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved Aug 22, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c Lopez, Cory (2008-06-17). "Bay Area pilot Janet Christine Dietrich dies". San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst Communications. Retrieved April 20, 2018.
  6. ^ "Jerrie Cobb Poses beside Mercury Capsule". Archived from the original on December 24, 2011. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
  7. ^ Qualifications for Astronauts: Hearings before the Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts Archived 2015-12-11 at the Wayback Machine, U.S. House of Representatives, 87th Cong. (1962)
  8. ^ Nolan, Stephanie (October 12, 2002). "One giant leap – backward: Part 2". The Globe and Mail. Archived from the original on September 13, 2004. Retrieved December 8, 2016.
  9. ^ Martha Ackman. The Mercury Thirteen: The true story of thirteen women and the dream of space flight. Random House, New York, 2003, p. 166.
  10. ^ Stephanie Nolen. Promised the Moon: The untold story of the first women in the space race. Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2002, p. 240.
  11. ^ Lathers, Marie (2009). "No Official Requirement: Women, History, Time, and the U.S. Space Program". Feminist Studies. 35 (1): 14–40 – via ebscohost.
  12. ^ Dwayne Day (July 15, 2013). "You've come a long way, baby!". The Space Review.
  13. ^ a b c d Stone, Tanya Lee, (2009). Almost astronauts : 13 women who dared to dream. Weitekamp, Margaret A., 1971– (1st ed.). Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press. ISBN 9780763636111. OCLC 225846987.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ a b c d "Â Can Women Break Through the Political Glass Ceiling?", Party Politics, Religion, and Women's Leadership, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 9781137333216, retrieved 2019-04-17
  15. ^ a b c d e f Lathers, Marie (2010). "Space Oddities". doi:10.5040/9781628928976.
  16. ^ a b Luce, Clare Boothe. (June 28, 1963). "The U.S. Team Is Still Warming Up The Bench but some people simply never get the message". Life Magazine, pages: 32–33.
  17. ^ "[Jerrie Cobb (left) and Janey B. Hart appearing before a special House subcommittee investigating the future role of women in space]". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2019-04-17.
  18. ^ a b "Mercury 13 documentary on Netflix". Netflix.
  19. ^ Funk, Wally. "The Mercury 13 Story". The Ninety-Nines. Archived from the original on 2009-05-07. Retrieved 2009-06-12.
  20. ^ Nelson, Sue (2016-07-19). "The Mercury 13: Women with the 'right stuff'". Retrieved 2019-04-17.
  21. ^ "Honoring the Mercury 13 Women". University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. May 12, 2007.
  22. ^ Lucinda Hahn (June 20, 2005). "Adler board honors women who reached for the stars". Chicago Tribune.
  23. ^ a b "Geraldyn "Jerrie" M. Cobb Papers 1952–1998". National Air and Space Museum. 2017-08-23. Retrieved 2019-04-16.
  24. ^ "Captain Marvel (2012)" #1 (July 18, 2012)
  25. ^ "The Astronaut Wives Club salutes the female astronauts that America wouldn't". 20 August 2015.
  26. ^ Eric Kelsey (April 19, 2018). "'Mercury 13' chronicles women in 1960s who trained for space flight". Reuters.
  27. ^ "NASA Scraps First All-Female Spacewalk For Want Of A Medium-Size Spacesuit". NPR.org. Retrieved 2019-04-17.

References[edit]

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