Jerrie Cobb, 1931–2019
The space pioneer who was grounded by sexism
In 1961, Jerrie Cobb seemed poised to become the first woman in space. A talented pilot who held world records for speed, altitude, and distance, she was the first woman to complete NASA’s arduous astronaut testing, scoring in the top 2 percent of candidates—male and female. Twelve other women made it through the tests before NASA abruptly shuttered the program. She and her female colleagues protested the decision in front of a congressional panel. Women pilots didn’t want to fight “a battle of the sexes,” she told lawmakers. “We seek, only, a place in our nation’s space future without discrimination.” Testifying the next day, astronaut John Glenn disagreed. “The fact that women are not in this field,” he said, “is a fact of our social order.” Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew into space the following year; it would be another two decades before an American woman, Sally Ride, made the journey.
Born in Norman, Okla., Geraldyn Cobb was the daughter of a military pilot, said The New York Times. She learned to fly in her father’s open-cockpit biplane and earned her pilot’s license at age 16, but struggled to find work as a female aviator. One airline rejected her after discovering “that Jerrie Cobb was not a man.” Cobb was eventually hired by an aircraft ferry service and had logged 7,000 hours in the cockpit by age 28. That’s when she was approached by NASA scientist Randy Lovelace, said the Houston Chronicle. He believed that women would make superb astronauts because they were lighter and shorter, needing fewer resources, and “could handle pain, heat, cold, and loneliness better than men.” Women were not allowed to be military test pilots, and so the testing took place in secret.
“Instead of making her an astronaut, NASA tapped her as a consultant to talk up the space program,” said the Associated Press. She was dismissed late in 1962, one week after commenting, “I’m the most unconsulted consultant in any government agency.” Cobb spent the next few decades as a humanitarian aid pilot, carrying food and medical supplies to remote corners of the Amazon. When NASA sent a 77-year-old Glenn into space again in 1998, Cobb asked for a second chance as well. She was rebuffed. “I would give my life to fly in space,” she said. “I would then, and I will now.”