Martha Ackmann is the author of “The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight.”
Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb has died. She died March 18 in Sun City Center, Fla., of Alzheimer’s disease. She was 88.
Chances are you don’t know Jerrie Cobb’s name. But you would have. Were it not for sexism at NASA and Congress, Cobb would have been the first American woman in space.
In the early 1960s, Cobb went through secret testing in hope of becoming an astronaut. William Randolph Lovelace II, head of NASA’s Life Sciences, was responsible for choosing the famed Mercury 7 astronauts. He was curious to find out how female pilots might fare on the same rigorous physical exams. He selected Cobb for the mission. Cobb was the 1959 Woman of the Year in Aviation and held world records for altitude, speed and distance.
She did not disappoint. Cobb scored as well and — in some cases — better than John Glenn, Alan Shepard and the rest. Lovelace then needed to judge if she was a fluke and tapped 25 other top-flight female pilots for testing. Twelve more made the cut. But just as the women were set for final space flight simulation tests, NASA pulled the plug. The space agency viewed Lovelace’s visionary experiments as just that — experiments. It then announced that it did not have the time or money to waste on women.
Cobb didn’t give up. She took her fight to Congress and forced a 1962 hearing to determine astronaut qualifications. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t help. When he got wind of the secret testing, he fired off a letter to NASA demanding, “Lets Stop This Now!” At the hearing, Glenn — fresh from orbiting the Earth — made things even worse. Asked if women were suited for space flight, he responded: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes. . . . The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
When it came time for Cobb to make her case, she was nervous. She hated the limelight. But there was too much on the line, and she let her plain-spoken Oklahoma clarity take over. Her opening sentence was simple and intensely American — or as American as we hope to be: “We seek only a place in our nation’s space future without discrimination,” she said. Then Cobb kicked off her black pumps under the hearing table and stared the men down.
Cobb never did become an astronaut. Congress decided all astronauts would be military jet pilots. Since women were excluded from those ranks, space was off limits as well.
It would take the social changes of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement before Sally Ride launched in 1983 and 16 more yearsbefore Eileen Collins became the first female space shuttle commander.
I was with Cobb in 1999 when Collins made history. Collins had invited the Mercury 13 women to stand in witness to what they had been denied. It was a long few days at the Cape, hot and swarming with mosquitoes. The launch endured multiple scrubs, and everyone was weary. The women passed the time in coffee shops, catching up on family news, but Cobb was nowhere to be found. She would appear for brief moments and then disappear in a flash. No one knew where she spent the night — certainly not in the hotel with them. Cobb would show up every morning in the same blue and white polo shirt and rumpled slacks. “Bet she’s sleeping on the beach,” one of the women said. They knew better than to corral her.
When the skies cleared over Cape Canaveral, Collins and crew prepared for liftoff. No one paid much attention to the Mercury 13 women — just a bunch of older women with water bottles and pocketbooks. Finally, the boosters engaged and the ground rumbled. The women rose and cheered, but Cobb was nowhere around. Then I saw her down in front on the grass. She was alone, and her hands were spread wide across the ground feeling the tremor.
Cobb once told me she would have given her life for space flight. She wanted one single chance to slip into orbit and stare at the vast wonder before her. While Cobb was never bitter, and she delighted in the accomplishments of today’s female astronauts, there was about her a deep reservoir of disappointment. Solitary, laconic, inscrutable — she will always be to me that lone woman sitting in the grass with her hands spread wide.
If she could not achieve her dream, Cobb at least wanted to feel what it would have been like.