Mercury 13 – The First Lady Astronauts
The sad fact is that for many years, it was a man’s world. Throughout history, there have been a few civilizations which gave women the equality they deserve.
The United States was not one of them. Just like the European customs on which it was based, society in the US treated women as second class citizens at best. This continued until only very recently, and some would say continues even now.
In the early 1960s, there were many prejudices, so Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace II may have been ahead of his time when in 1960, he invited Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb to undergo the physical fitness testing regimen that he had helped to develop select the original U.S. astronauts, the “Mercury Seven.” After becoming the first American woman to pass those tests, Jerrie Cobb and Doctor Lovelace publicly announced her test results at a 1960 conference in Stockholm. They then began to recruit more women to take the tests.
Jerrie and Randy were assisted in their efforts by Jacqueline Cochran, who was a famous American aviatrix and an old friend of Dr. Lovelace. She even volunteered to pay for the testing expenses. By the Fall of 1961, a total of 25 women ranging in age from 23 to 41 had come to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They underwent 4 days of testing, the very same physical and psychological tests as the original Mercury 7 had. While some had learned of the examinations by word of mouth, many were recruited through the Ninety-Nines, a women pilot’s organization.
A few of the women took additional tests. Jerrie Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City for an isolation tank test. Jerrie and Wally also experienced a high-altitude chamber test and the Martin-Baker seat ejection test. Because of other family and job commitments, not all of the women were asked to take these tests.
Out of the original 25 applicants, 13 were chosen for further testing at the Naval Aviation center in Pensacola, FL. The thirteen finalists, the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, were:
- Jerrie Cobb
- Wally Funk
- Irene Leverton
- Myrtle “K” Cagle
- Janey Hart
- Gene Nora Stombough [Jessen]
- Jerri Sloan
- Rhea Hurrle [Woltman]
- Sarah Gorelick [Ratley]
- Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman
- Jan Dietrich
- Marion Dietrich (now deceased)
- Jean Hixson (now deceased)
Expecting the next round of tests to be the first step in training which would allow them to become astronaut trainees, several of the women quit their jobs in order to be able to go. Shortly before they were scheduled to report, the women received telegrams canceling the Pensacola testing. Without an official NASA request to run the tests, the Navy would not allow the use of their facilities.
Jerrie Cobb (the first woman to qualify) and Janey Hart (the forty-one year old mother who was also married to U.S. Senator Philip Hart of Michigan) campaigned in Washington to have the program continue. They contacted President Kenendy and Vice President Johnson. They attended hearings Janey Hart chaired by Representative Victor Anfuso and testified on behalf of the women. Jackie Cochran, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and George Low all testified that including women in the Mercury Project or creating a special program for them would be a detriment to the space program. NASA required all astronauts to be jet test pilots and have engineering degrees. Since no women could meet these requirements, no women qualified to become astronauts. The Subcommittee expressed sympathy, but did not rule on the question.
On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Clare Booth Luce published an article about the FLATs (First Lady Astronaut Trainees) in Life magazine criticizing NASA for not achieving this first. Tereshkova’s launch and the Luce article renewed media attention to women in space. Jerrie Cobb made another push to revive the women’s testing. It failed.
In 1978, six women were chosen as astronaut candidates by NASA: Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, Anna Fisher and Shannon Lucid. On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. On February 3, 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. At her invitation, eight of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees attended her launch. On July 23, 1999, Collins also became the first woman Shuttle Commander. She is also scheduled to command the first “Return-To-Flight mission after the space shuttle Columbia disaster grounded the shuttle fleet for over 2 years.
Jerrie Cobb – A Love Affair With the Sky
On March 5, 1931, Norman, Oklahoma was the birthplace for Geraldyn M. “Jerrie” Cobb. Daughter of Lt. Col. William H. Cobb and Helena Butler Stone Cobb, Jerrie Cobb took her first flight at the age of 12 in the backseat of a 1936 Waco open-cockpit biplane flown by her father, Col. Cobb. Thus began one of the world’s great love stories.
- “I have this feeling that life is a spiritual adventure, and I want to make mine in the sky.”
While still a student at Oklahoma City Classen High School, she earned a private pilot’s license at the age of sixteen. On her 18th birthday, she received her Commercial Pilot’s license and had added her Flight Instructor’s Rating soon thereafter. During high school, she was barnstorming around the Great Plains in a Piper J-3 Cub, dropping leaflets over small towns announcing the arrival of an on-elephant circus. She slept under the Cub’s wing at night and scraped together the gas money to practice her flying by giving rides.
After high school, she spent a year in college at Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha and also played semi-professional softball, but she made her living by crop dusting and teaching navigation. In the early 1950s, with so many male pilots who had returned from the war, it was nearly impossible for her to land a job as a pilot. She accepted a job at the Miami airport, where she met Jack Ford, a veteran pilot of WWII who had a service ferrying aircraft worldwide. By the age of 21, Jerry was delivering four-engine military bombers and fighters to foreign Air Forces around the world. She was well on her way to becoming one of the world’s top pilots.
True Love Ends for Jerrie Cobb
Following a three-year romance with another pilot, which ended tragically with an explosion of his airplane over the Pacific, as a commercial pilot, Cobb set several world altitude and speed records in Aero Commander airplanes built by Oklahoma’s Aero Design and Engineering Company. When she became the first woman to fly in the world’s largest air exposition, the Salon Aeronautique Internacional in Paris, her fellow airmen named her Pilot of the Year and awarded her the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement. Life Magazine named her one of the nine women of the “100 most important young people in the United States.” She was also honored by the government of France.
History In the Making?
As the Space Age was beginning, Jerry Cobb was quickly gaining a reputation in the aviation community as one of the most experienced in the high performance propeller aircraft of her day. As America began selecting the first astronauts in 1959, Jerrie was picked by the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque to be the first woman to undergo the same physical and psychological fitness testing regimen as the Mercury Astronaut Selection Tests. After passing the tests with flying colors, Jerrie was asked to recruit 25 other qualified women pilots. Twelve passed the first series of tests.
After promising her an early space flight, NASA appointed her the agency’s consultant for the future use of women as astronauts. However, NASA’s requirement that astronauts have military jet test pilot experience eliminated all women since women were not allowed to fly in the military. They kept her grounded for three years during which a Congressional hearing was called for Jerrie to testify about women astronauts. She was staggered when John Glenn testified that “men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes,” and women are not astronauts because of our social order. Finally, her hopes were deflated.
A year later, Russia sent the first woman to fly in space, Valentina Tereshkova, a factory worker. The American space program did not open the ranks of its astronaut corps to women until 1978.
New Love for Jerrie Cobb
Setting her disappointment aside, Cobb resigned from her position with the space agency and became a private pilot using her flying talent to serve the primitive people of the Amazon jungle. For 35 years, she has found joy and delight in flying over the enormous uncharted jungle, bringing hope, seeds and help to her primitive friends.
Jerrie has received a number of awards:
- Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement
- Named Woman of the Year in Aviation
- Amelia Earhart Memorial Award
- Named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association
- Fourth American to be awarded Gold Wings of the Federacion Aeronautique International, Paris, France
- Named Captain of Achievement by International Academy of Achievement
- Served 5 years as a Consultant to the Federal Aviation Administration
- Selected by the Mercury Astronaut Selection Team to be the first, and only, woman to undergo and successfully pass all 3 phases of Mercury astronaut tests (1960)
- Appointed consultant to NASA
- Honored by the government of Ecuador for pioneering new air routes over the Andes Mountains and and Andes jungle
- Awarded the Harmon International Trophy for “The Worlds Best Woman Pilot” by President Nixon at a White House ceremony
- Inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame as “the Most Outstanding Aviatrix in the US
- Received Pioneer Woman Award for her “courageous frontier spirit” flying all over the Amazon jungle serving primitive Indian tribes
- Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
At age 67, Jerrie is in excellent physical condition and still flies professionally. As Senator Glenn recently returned to space, this courageous woman still hopes to fulfill her lifelong dream of flying in space. As she puts it, “I’d give my life to fly in space. I would have then, and I will now.”
Individual Women in Space – Astronauts and Cosmonauts
In 1999, on STS-93 on the Columbia space shuttle, astronaut Eileen Collins became the first woman space shuttle commander.
NASA’s first “Teacher in Space,” astronaut Christa McAuliffe was aboard the Challenger when it tragically exploded right after takeoff in 1986.
Biography of astronaut Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space. Sally Ride first flew in space in 1983.
More Women in Space:
Some of the less well known women who have been astronauts and cosmonauts, or who have been part of NASA or Russia’s astronaut programs.
About’s Guide to Inventors, Mary Bellis, highlights inventor and astronaut Ellen Ochoa who was America’s first Hispanic woman astronaut.
About’s Space Guide, Nick Greene, profiles astronaut Judith Resnik, who first flew on the space shuttle in 1984 and died on Challenger in 1986.
Nick Greene’s profile of the first woman in space, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who first flew on June 16, 1963.
Nick Greene’s profile of astronaut Christa Corrigan McAuliffe, the “teacher in space” who died on Challenger when it exploded in 1986.
Timeline – Women in Space:
A listing of the “firsts” for women in space: first women in space, first women in the space program, first women astronauts, first woman to walk in space, etc.
Astronauts and Cosmonauts:
Index of links for famous women in space: the best-known of the women astronauts and cosmonauts, plus articles on this site and on the Net relating to women astronauts in general.
More Women in Space:
Some of the less well known women astronauts and cosmonauts and other women who have been part of NASA or Russia’s space programs.