Astronaut Jerrie Cobb The Mercury 13 Were NASA's First Women
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.
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
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.
Books of Interest:
The Mercury 13, The Untold Story
of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann.
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.
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
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.