Jerrie Cobb Passed Astronaut Tests But NASA Kept Her Out of Space
In 1960, Jerrie Cobb was rapidly becoming a celebrity. Already a veteran pilot at age 29, she aced a battery of tests given to women eager to join the men already jostling for trips to space. Jerrie Cobb Passed Astronaut Tests But NASA Kept Her Out of Space
Oklahoma-born pilot, shut out of Mercury program, flew food and medicine to indigenous people in Amazon.
To check her sense of balance, testers squirted water into her ears. In a contraption dubbed the Vomit Comet, she was spun head over heels and shaken side to side. She swallowed a rubber hose and endured nearly 10 hours of sensory deprivation in a water tank.
“Moon Maid’s Ready,” declared a headline in her native Oklahoma.
Time magazine mentioned her bust size and habit of eating hamburgers for breakfast. “If all goes well,” Time reported, “perhaps in late 1962 Jerrie Cobb will don a formless pressure suit, tuck her ponytail into a helmet and hop atop a rocket for the long, lonely trip into space.” Jerrie Cobb Passed Astronaut
All didn’t go well. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided it was premature to add women to its astronaut roster.
Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian, in 1963 became the first woman in space. It would be 20 more years before Sally Ride was launched as the first American woman in that club.
Geraldyn Menor Cobb, known as Jerrie, was born March 5, 1931, in Norman, Okla. Because her father was in the Army Air Corps, the family moved frequently. In her 1997 memoir “Solo Pilot,” she recalled never being in one place long enough to make close friends. Jerrie Cobb Passed Astronaut
Ms. Cobb found consolation in humanitarian missions, flying medicine and other aid to indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest. She died March 18 at age 88.
Her older sister liked dolls. Jerrie made model airplanes and learned the Morse Code. When she was 12, her father began teaching her to fly his open-cockpit Waco biplane. He attached blocks of wood to the pedals so she could reach them.
On her 16th birthday, she earned a pilot’s license. Soon she found work flying a single-engine plane and dropping leaflets to promote a circus. When she wasn’t doing circus duties, she offered plane rides at $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. At night, she slept on the ground, next to her plane. Wonder bread and bologna sustained her.
She had a commercial pilot’s license at 18 and qualified as a flight instructor. Competing with thousands of military pilots returned from World War II, however, she couldn’t get hired as a commercial pilot. Finally she found work at Miami International Airport as a typist and file clerk. That led to a job piloting surplus U.S. military planes to Latin America and Europe. On her first trip, during a fueling stop in Ecuador, she was accused of being a Peruvian spy and jailed for 12 days.
By the time she began her space tests, she had worked as a test pilot, performed in air shows, set aviation records and flown 64 types of aircraft.
Despite the media hype, the tests of potential women astronauts weren’t endorsed or managed by NASA. Instead, they were conducted by William Randolph Lovelace II, who ran a research clinic in New Mexico and was chairman of a committee advising NASA on life sciences.
Once NASA made clear its lack of enthusiasm for any near-term use of female astronauts, Ms. Cobb lobbied hard for reconsideration. At a hearing held by a U.S. House subcommittee in July 1962, she said female pilots weren’t “trying to join a battle of the sexes…. We seek only a place in our nation’s space future without discrimination.”
In testimony to the same subcommittee, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, was unsupportive. “Men fight the wars, fly the planes, come back and design and test them,” he said. “The fact that women haven’t cracked this field yet is a result of our social order.”
The shy Ms. Cobb didn’t relish public debate. “Going up into space couldn’t be near as frightening as sitting here,” she told the congressional panel.
NASA made her a consultant. “I’m the most unconsulted consultant in any government agency today,” she said in a speech later that year.
She may have hurt her cause by emphasizing her own zeal to be the first woman in space rather than focusing on the scientific arguments for female astronauts, including lighter weight and greater tolerance for pain. “She was relentlessly persistent, and her pleas were impassioned, colored with an emotion and a religious fervor quite out of step with NASA’s formal scientific tone,” Stephanie Nolen wrote in her 2002 book about women in space, “Promised the Moon.”
After NASA dashed her hopes, Ms. Cobb wrote, she felt she had wasted three years trying to become an astronaut. She retreated to a Jamaican beach to rethink her future. Deeply religious, she eventually decided to devote her life to helping indigenous people in the Amazonian jungle. She learned their languages, ferried missionaries and delivered medicine, clothing and seeds.
In the late 1990s, Ms. Cobb made one last reach for space. NASA sent John Glenn on another space flight in 1998 at age 78 in a mission that included research into aging. Ms. Cobb asked to be considered for a similar flight. NASA snubbed her once again.
She kept her personal life mostly private but wrote about an early romance with another pilot, Jack Ford. He died in 1959 when a plane he was flying exploded after taking off from Wake Island. Ms. Cobb never married or had children, a friend said.
Though she didn’t soar as high as she wished, Ms. Cobb never renounced her childhood dreams. “I fly,” she wrote in her memoir, “simply because not to fly would be unthinkable.”