A second opportunity is forming for the Oklahoman-born pilot. The announcement that astronaut John Glenn, 76, will return to space this fall has sparked a movement to get Jerrie Cobb, 68, a place on a mission to space.
And even though she is being ignored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as casually as she was nearly 40 years ago, the possibility has brought her back from the Amazon jungle, her home now.
It is, she said in an interview last week, "my destiny ... I've been waiting 38 years. I've thought about it all my life. I will do whatever it takes."
Geraldyn Cobb was born in Norman in 1931 and spent her high school years at Classen in Oklahoma City. Harvey Cobb, an Air Force officer, put his daughter in a cockpit when she was 12. She never again wavered in her determination to fly.
At the first eligible age, 16, she soloed. At 18, she had a commercial license and dismayed her parents with the announcement that she didn't need college. Her career was going to be as far up in the air as she could go.
Cobb played semiprofessional women's softball on a team called the Oklahoma City Queens for money to buy a World War II surplus Fairchild PT-23 and a chance to be self-employed.
She patrolled oil pipelines from the air while she took flight instructor training; she had that certificate in hand by the time she was 21.
In 1953, she took a job that was available because men pilots wouldn't have it. The 22-year-old pilot ferried planes to the Peruvian Air Force along a risky, grueling route fraught with a minimal fuel load, jungles, shark-filled ocean and Andean peaks. Once, she was arrested for suspected espionage at a fueling stop in Ecuador.
By 1955, she was back in Ponca City with her family, pushing the envelope as she knew it. She set three international distance and speed records, flying each time in a twin-engine Aero Commander. Only then did Aero Design and Engineering Co., the Oklahoma manufacturer of the Commander, deviate from its policy against hiring female test pilots. It named Cobb sales promotion manager.
She'd flown crop dusters, gliders, blimps and B-17s. She'd earned world records for speed, altitude and distance. And by 1960, she had 10,000 flying hours, compared to John Glenn's, 5,000.
A private medical foundation in New Mexico conducted the testing and training for the Mercury mission men. It was a secret experiment on the part of the foundation director to compare women's qualifications to the men candidates. For the first guinea pig, they selected the 29-year old Oklahoma pilot.
Cobb entered the program six months after Glenn. She endured 75 tests of her heart rate, lung capacity, loneliness level, pain level and noise tolerance, spinning, tilting and dropping into water tanks to measure resistance to vertigo and sensory deprivation.
She passed in the top 2 percent of those tested. Furthermore, testers said, Cobb complained less during the test than the Mercury men had.
On that basis, the laboratory recruited 20 women for an astronaut training program. Thirteen of those met the NASA qualifications. Their success became their downfall. NASA didn't know what to do with them.
Finally, the government canceled the women's program based on a new ruling that all astronauts must be jet pilots. Since all jet pilots were military, and the military didn't allow women to fly jets, no women were eligible to be astronauts.
Well-placed protesters brought the issue before Congress. Cobb appeared on behalf of future women astronauts. But she was overshadowed by the testimony of a well-known aviator who stated he believed women astronauts to be an "unnatural" phenomen. He was John Glenn.
Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, has spent more than 30 years wanting to go back. He has been a national idol, he has run for president, he has served in the Senate.
At 76, he will get his wish. In October, Glenn will serve as a payload officer aboard a space shuttle mission. His role in the crew will include an experimental study of the effects of space travel on aging bones, muscles and sleep habits.
Though she keeps a postal box address in Ponca City, Cobb lives in Florida and in the Amazon jungle of South America. Until 1963, she kept up a campaign to persuade officials to send her to space and maintained a level of physical fitness that would allow her to board a space craft at a moment's notice.
When she finally gave up, she took her disappointment and her plane to Florida, her launch site to the jungles of Central and South America. For 35 years, she has worked as a bush pilot in missionary endeavors, carrying supplies for "my indigenous friends," in Amazon villages.
In the early 1980s, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the work she has done primarily as a solo pilot.
Don Dorough, a history instructor at Fresno Pacific College in California, has not met Jerrie Cobb or learned much about Oklahoma. But a few years ago when he was writing a curriculum on "Women of the West," he "discovered" the Oklahoma aviatrix and concluded that "This woman got a raw deal."
When he read about Glenn's pending flight, he saw it as an opportunity for delayed justice. "She came so close," he said in an interview. "If he can go twice, she should go once." Dorough enlisted the Women's History Project of Windsor, Calif., as a partner.
Mary Ruthsdotter, who works for that private, nonprofit research and feminist organization, said the group chose not to take a leadership position but a supportive role. It is directing petitions and letters to NASA officials and U.S. Senators.
The California senators, both women, immediately offered support. Dorough had a second thought, he said. "I thought maybe we should have given the Oklahoma senators first chance." But neither Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa [Note] , nor Sen. Don Nickles, who is from Cobb's hometown of Ponca City, has answered mail sent them three months ago, Dorough said.
NASA's answer was received April 8. Joseph N. Rothenberg, associate administrator for space flight, wrote the women's group:
"We are in agreement that Ms. Cobb is a remarkable woman with many notable accomplishments to her credit. I hope the day will come when everyone will have the opportunity to fly on the Shuttle. For now, however, as with any rare commodity that is in great demand, we have the obligation to maximize taxpayer return. ... This compels us to fly those fortunate few who, by representing us all, can return to us the most benefit from the precious research."
Dorough is among those who have reasoned that John Glenn isn't returning to space because he's the most qualified. Obviously, Dorough said, Glenn as a U.S. Senator can influence appropriations to NASA. As an American hero, he can also fuel some enthusiasm for a space program that has become boring to the American public.
Some of the glamour has gone since the Mercury days, Cobb admits. And, she said, "It's still a good old boy club. It took them 35 years to find a qualified woman test pilot."
Still, Cobb's anticipation is undiminished. "I'm not mad. I'm just grateful to get another chance."
Jerrie has written two books.
Woman Into Space: The Jerrie Cobb Story. Published by: Prentice-Hall: 1963, 223 pages. ISBN # ?.
Solo Pilot, 224 Pages, J. Cobb, September 1997. ISBN: 0965992403
Pioneer flier shoots for stars, bids for space flight
Jerrie Cobb pictures in Florida Today Archives, week ending June 21, 1998
NOTE: Author of this web page wrote Senator Inhofe and he replied July 16, 1998 with a nice letter and appreciation for Jerrie's accomplishments and included copies of the letter he wrote to Daniel Goldin, Administrator of NASA, and NASA's reply: "Although Ms. Cobb has a most impressive background as a pioneering aviator, it has been almost forty years since she qualified as a Mercury program astronaut. Her current qualifications would have to be assessed, and the appropriate way for her to do this is to apply for the Astronaut Candidate Program. NASA accepts applications for the Astronaut Candidate Program on a continuous basis and selects a new class of astronaut candidates about every two years. At the current time, NASA does not have plans to fly a series of older individuals into space. Should that situation change, we would certainly be willing to consider Ms. Cobb as a candidate for flight."
The History Channel examines why Americas first
female astronaut corps never had a chance to go into space
Friday, October 23 at 8 pm ET/ 9 pm PT
New York, NY, September 28, 1998 On October 29, 77-year-old John Glenn, an original Mercury Seven astronaut and the first American to orbit the Earth, is scheduled to return to space for the first time in 35 years in order to test the effects of space flight on a senior citizen. Among those watching with interest will be 67-year-old Jerrie Cobb. For nearly four decades, Cobb has dreamt of soaring above the clouds, and she hopes that Glenns flight will open a door for her that was slammed shut years before. In 1961, she was one of thirteen women pilots who had qualified to become astronauts. The story of their losing battle for equality in the skies is chronicled on IN SEARCH OF HISTORY s presentation of THE MERCURY 13: SECRET ASTRONAUTS, premiering Friday, October 23 at 8 pm ET/ 9 pm PT.
THE MERCURY 13: SECRET ASTRONAUTS traces the 70-year struggle for American female pilots to achieve respect. The documentary features commentary from members of the Mercury 13, including Kay Cagle, Gene Nora Jessen and Irene Leverton, as well as current female astronauts and test pilots, including Bonnie Dunbar, Pam Melroy and Tamara Jernigan.
Project Mercury began shortly after the Soviets shocked Americans by launching Sputnik in 1957. Its goal was to put an American into space before the Russians. Jackie Cochran, the most respectedand bestfemale pilot of the 1950s (she was the first woman to break the sound barrier), was equally determined to include women in the battle to beat the Russians.
Six months after the Mercury Seven were introduced to the public, Dr. Randy Lovelace, who ran the New Mexico clinic at which extensive medical tests were conducted on astronaut candidates, learned that the Russians were considering putting a woman into space. He became curious about how women would perform on the same tests he had administered on the Mercury Seven.
He found his test candidate in Jerrie Cobb, a 28-year-old pilot from Oklahoma and the most accomplished female pilot in the U.S. next to Jackie Cochran.
Cobb endured 75 different tests and performed as good as, and in some cases, better than the men. Six months after the secret tests were conducted, Lovelace announced publicly that Jerrie Cobb was qualified for space, turning Cobb into a celebrity.
Lovelace felt he needed to know if Cobb was an exception to the rule, or if other females could test just as well. With the help of Cochran, who paid for much of the testing out of her own pocket, he recruited twenty women to take the same tests that had been given to men like Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Twelve women passed the tests.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviets beat the Americans in the race to get the first man into space. Cobb appealed to NASA that the U.S. had a perfect opportunity to beat the Russians by putting the first woman in spaceand she expected to be that woman. The only qualification that Cobb and the rest of the Mercury 13 lacked was experience flying a jet. Two days before the training was to begin, the Navy withdrew its support. Despite extensive lobbying efforts in Washington, the program came to a halt, and the Mercury 13 lost their chance to become space heroines. One year later, on June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, a non-pilot, became the first woman in space.
Americas first woman in space didnt occur until June 18, 1983 when Dr. Sally Ride flew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. Since Rides historic first journey into space in 1983, women have played greater and greater roles in subsequent shuttle missions. To date, twenty-eight American female astronauts have flown on the Shuttle. In 1995, Eileen Collins, an experienced Air Force test pilot, became the first female astronaut to pilot an American spacecraft. In 1996, Shannon Lucid broke the record for the longest time spent in space while aboard the Russian Space Station Mir.
Will John Glenns ride into the skies open the door for Jerrie Cobb to finally make it into space? THE MERCURY 13: SECRET ASTRONAUTS shows how the experience of participating in the astronaut program affected these womens lives and how they still have dreams of soaring into the heavens.
THE MERCURY 13: SECRET ASTRONAUTS is a production of Creative Production Group for The History Channel. It is produced and directed by Robert Lihani. Executive producers are Alan Ett and James Cross. It is written by Robert Lihani and James Cross. Executive Producer for The History Channel is Susan Werbe.
Winner of two George Foster Peabody Awards, The History Channel reveals the power and passion of history. An inviting place where people experience history personally and connect their own lives to the great lives and events of the past. Now enjoyed in more than 51.1 million homes, The History Channel is the only place Where the Past Comes Alive. Visit on the World Wide Web at HistoryChannel.com.
Female flier still seeks trip into space July 11, 1998
NOW Launches Campaign to Send Jerrie Cobb Into Space October 28, 1998
First female astronaut still hoping to go up CNN October 28, 1998
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