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Celebrate Sputnik's 60th Anniversary

Astronaut Jerrie Cobb
The Mercury 13 Were NASA's First Women Astronauts

By: John Shepler

Deep in the Amazon jungle, Jerrie Cobb dances on the wing of her airplane by the light of the moon. She does a little jig from the tip of one wing to the other, a few small steps for a woman to celebrate that giant leap for mankind. It is July, 1969. Astronaut Jerrie Cobb is there, touching the moon's surface with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, in spirit if not in person. But for a twist of fate, a verdict rendered in the social context of the times, her footprints might also be imprinted in the powdery crust next to the Apollo Eagle lander.

The Mercury 13 - Click Here to learn more about this book or order from Books-A-Million.We can recite the names of the Mercury 7 astronauts, their space capsules and the rockets that lifted them. But how many of us ever heard of the Mercury 13, the forgotten astronauts? They were America's first female space fliers, decades before Sally Ride flew in the Space Shuttle. Selected by NASA to the same exact screening process as the Mercury 7 men, they had college degrees, thousands of flight hours and excellent health. There is some thought that women would have been better candidates than men because generally they were smaller in stature and lighter in weight, important considerations for the limited lifting capability of rockets in the early sixties.

So what happened? Why is it only now that we're hearing of Jerrie Cobb and the Mercury 13? The cruel twist of fate that doomed their space careers occurred after the secret candidate screening had been completed. NASA added one more rule. An astronaut must also be a jet pilot. With no women flying military jet fighters, K. Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson, Gene Nora Jessen, Irene Leverton, Sara Ratley, B. Steadman, Jerri Truhill and Rhea Woltman saw the Mercury 13 program disbanded, their dreams of space flight dissolved.

Those dreams remained dissolved until a changing social climate reopened the door for the next generation of qualified women to become both jet pilots and astronauts. The thought that any of the original Mercury 13 would ever get into a spacecraft seemed fanciful until one of the original Mercury 7 changed the public consciousness of who is qualified to fly into space. If a 76 year old man with spunk can do his part on a Space Shuttle crew, then why not a 67 year old woman? And who better than the extraordinary Jerrie Cobb?

In 1960, Jerrie ranked in the top 2% of both men and women tested for astronaut training at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She had 10,000 flight hours in everything from crop dusters to blimps to B-17s. Her father, Harvey Cobb, an Air Force officer, had taught her to fly when she was only 12 years old. She soloed at 16 and, like Alan Shepard, hung around airports washing and fueling planes, doing any odd jobs that were available to earn money to fly. She played women's semiprofessional softball for the Oklahoma City Queens long enough to buy a World War II surplus Fairchild PT-23, and then she hired herself out to patrol oil pipelines from the air.

In 1953, at age 22, Jerrie Cobb took a job most men pilots wanted nothing to do with. While working at a maintenance hanger in Miami, she met Jack Ford, owner of an airplane delivery service. He needed pilots to deliver planes to the Peruvian Air Force, a dangerous, long distance flight over jungles, shark-filled waters and Andean peaks. She hired on for one delivery and fell in love with both the excitement of the missions and her boss. Jerrie and Jack Ford were engaged for two years...until he died in an aircraft accident. Jerrie returned to her family in Ponca City, Oklahoma, then proceeded to set three international distance and speed records in a twin-engine Aero Commander. Clearly, she had the right stuff.

NASA knew that. They also knew that the Russians were intending to fly a woman into orbit. But America somehow lost its vision and lost its chance at another first. On June 16, 1963, Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, a 26 year old Russian textile worker, became the first woman in space.

Discouraged, but still with all the makings of a hero, Jerrie Cobb took her plane and her desire to contribute something important to humanity into the Amazon rain forest. For the last 35 years, she's ferried antibiotics, seeds, clothes, doctors and hope to the primitive Indian villages of Central and South America. Her mission today serves 6 million living in Amazonia, covering parts of Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador. In places, the terrain is no more hospitable than the moon itself. While she never received the honor of expanding humanity's reach to the moon's cratered surface, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for serving humanity's needs on this planet.

We love our heroes. We need our John Glenns and Jerrie Cobbs. They're so important in defining who we are and what we stand for. Perhaps now it's time that we validate that importance to yet another American hero. Let's offer Jerrie Cobb that opportunity to fly into space that we denied her so long ago. It's not too late. She's fit and ready to go. A mission to study the Amazon from space? Perhaps that or even helping build and operate the International Space Station would be a fitting tribute to a woman who still possesses so much of The Right Stuff.

 

Find t-shirts, hats and party supplies to celebrate the great American total solar eclipse on August 21 here!

 

Books of Interest:

The Mercury 13, The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann. Order now from Books-A-Million

Women Astronauts with CDROM by Laura S. Woodmansee.

Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space by Carole Ann Camp. A biography of Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman to travel in space.

Mae Jemison by Sonia W. Black

Find Where the Wind Goes, Moments from My Life by Mae Jemison. Dr. Mae Jemison--chemical engineer, scientist, teacher, and the first African-American woman to go into space--shares the story of her life. In this autobiography, she traces her life from her childhood determination to fly into space to when she made history as she blasted into orbit aboard the space shuttle "Endeavor".

Astronauts by Allison Lassieur. Describes how astronauts are trained and how they live and work in space and discusses some famous male and female astronauts. Targeted for younger readers.

Countdown; A History of Space Flight T. A. Heppenheimer. The race to put a man on the moon provided the perfect metaphor for scientific achievement, one that challenged and captured the public imagination. Yet in addition to its science-fiction glamour, the space race served equally powerful and social objectives. Countdown provides the first overview of the period that explores the achievements and failures of all sides of the space race in their full historical context.

 

Also visit these related sites:

The Ninety-Nines - The Mercury 13 Story written by Wally Funk. Tells about the candidates and their qualifications by one of the women astronauts selected in 1960. The Ninety-Nines is an international organization of women pilots.

State-Born Aviatrix Yearns for Space. 2nd Astronaut Bid Supported - From The Sunday Oklahoman, comes this article by Ann DeFrange that tells much about the life and adventures of Jerrie Cobb.

 

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First Published: November 8, 1998 as part of A Positive Light