Celebrating Jerrie Cobb, Pioneer for Women in Space

Jerrie Cobb, a pioneer in the drive to bring women to space, has passed away at the age of 88. This feminist icon died on March 18 in Hospice Care in Sun City Center, but her passing was not announced to the public until April 18. She is best known as an outspoken member of the Mercury 13 — a group of women who underwent all the same tests as the men of Mercury Seven, but who never traveled to space due solely to their gender.

Geraldyn Menor Cobb was the first woman to pass all the same preflight tests as the Mercury astronauts, although these were not officially conducted by NASA. She is often referred to as NASA’s first female astronaut candidate, but the space agency did not allow female candidates until 1978, a full 15 years after the USSR made Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space. In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to enter orbit around the Earth, and the first US space mission piloted by a woman did not take place until 1995. In preparation for that flight, pilot Eileen Collins invited Cobb to the launch site as a special guest.

Jerrie Cobb standing next to a Mercury capsule.
Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury space capsule. Image credit: NASA

“Cobb, along with 24 other women, underwent physical tests similar to those taken by the Mercury astronauts with the belief that she might become an astronaut trainee. All the women who participated in the program, known as First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLAT), were skilled pilots,” NASA describes in a biography page for the enterprising space pioneer.

Taking Flight

Cobb was born in 1931, and she flew her father’s open-cockpit Waco airplane at age 12, becoming a pilot at age 16. Two years later, she was certified to train other pilots. She attended Oklahoma College for Women (currently University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) for one year before leaving school. Earning a living as a semi-professional softball player for the Oklahoma City Queens, she saved up enough money to purchase her own airplane, a World War Two surplus Fairchild PT-23.

Flying an Aero Commander aircraft, Cobb set three world records in flight — the longest non-stop flight and the world light-plane speed record in 1959, followed the next year by a new record for highest altitude ever attained in a lightweight aircraft, 37,010 feet. She was also the first woman to fly at the Paris Air Show.

Following the end of the war, most flight jobs went to male pilots, forcing Cobb to take less-desirable positions, including crop dusting, patrolling pipelines, and carrying war surplus to the Peruvian Air Force and other locales. During her time ferrying cargo, Cobb was arrested in Ecuador while refueling, accused of being a spy.

These achievements caught the eye of scouts looking for women able to handle the rigors of spaceflight. However, the jobs they envisioned women carrying out in space were traditional “women’s work,” like operating telephones and performing secretarial work.

The group asked Cobb to undergo the same testing as potential Mercury astronauts, an ordeal which Cobb passed. She recommended 25 other female pilots for testing, and half of those women also passed. Women who participated in the FLAT program, a series of tests carried out by Dr. Randy Lovelace without official sanction by NASA, became known as the Mercury 13.

The Flight for Equality

Despite her accomplishments, media coverage of Cobb was highly-sexist, with news stories publishing her measurements, and describing her clothes in detail, as if she were being profiled in a fashion magazine.

In 1962, Cobb testified before Congress, as the legislature examined whether women should be allowed to travel to space. She also pressed NASA to eliminate a requirement that astronauts needed to be trained as combat pilots. This proviso created an additional barrier to bringing women to space, as female service members were not allowed to train for combat.

When the Soviet Union launch Tereshkova into space in 1963, Cobb publicized the story as an example of how women were just as capable of men at handling the rigors of spaceflight.

“Lovelace’s privately-funded women’s testing project received renewed media attention when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. In response, Clare Booth Luce published an article in Life magazine criticizing NASA and American decision makers. By including photographs of all thirteen Lovelace finalists, the names of all thirteen women became public for the first time,” Margaret A. Weitekamp writes for NASA.

The members of the Mercury 13 were at least as qualified as Tereshkova to fly in space. But, as is the case for far too many women in science, their contributions and abilities were overlooked in the media and by scientific organizations, in favor of their male counterparts.

The Legacy of Cobb

In her later years, Cobb spent her time helping others, flying around the Amazon as a Christian missionary, bringing food and medicine to people in need. She wrote two books, Women into Space and Solo Pilot. For her work, Cobb was honored with the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement, the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award, and several other accolades. The National Organization of Women campaigned for Cobb to be sent to space aboard the space shuttle as part of geriatric studies which involved John Glenn, but that drive proved unsuccessful.

Jerri Cobb stands in front of the space shuttle, along with other women who led the quest for women in space.
In 1995, Cobb (third from the left) was invited to watch the launch of the first US space mission piloted by a woman. From left to right are: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Ratley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Image credit: NASA

An off-Broadway play produced in 2017, They Promised Her the Moon, was based on the life of Jerrie Cobb.

Cobb made great strides in the fight for equal rights for women at the same time as the civil rights movement was burgeoning, and the human space program was just getting off the ground. Cobb played a major part in bringing about the current understanding at NASA that women are playing, and will continue to play, tremendous roles in the exploration and colonization of space. She was an inspiration and a guiding light for future generations.

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