NOW Launches Campaign to Send Pilot Jerrie Cobb Into Space


by Latifa Lyles, Development Analyst with research contributed by Camille Paldi

AP/Worldwide Photos
Pilot Jerrie Cobb in the cockpit of a military aircraft in a 1961 photo. When Cobb reported for astronaut training in 1960, she logged over 10,000 flight hours, more than any male astronaut.
 
When 77-year-old Senator John Glenn blasted off in the Shuttle Discovery in October, NOW had already joined others, including lawmakers and educators, in support of a 67-year-old woman and would-be astronaut-Jerrie Cobb. NOW's campaign took off before Discovery, with a petition drive aimed at convincing NASA to grant Cobb, a record-setting pilot and Nobel Prize nominee, the space voyage she deserved, but never received.

Glenn lobbied NASA to include him in another space mission as part of a geriatric study on weightlessness and aging, a study that did not plan to include women, the majority of the nation's elderly. Thirty-eight years after becoming NASA's first female astronaut candidate, Cobb remains fit and ready to serve the space program and science in broadening this study.

"Jerrie Cobb has prepared her whole lifetime for a journey into space," said NOW V.P.-Membership and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Johnson. "It is time for NASA to put Jerrie where she belongs - in space and in the history books as an example for women, men, girls and boys."

Cobb's flight career began at the age of 12, alongside her father in his 1936 Waco bi-wing airplane.  On her 16th birthday, Cobb passed the tests for her pilot's license. For the next two years she did odd jobs, like waxing and washing planes, in exchange for flying time. By 18, Cobb earned her commercial pilot's license and became a certified flight instructor.
 

Photo by Scott Audette, AP/Worldwide Photos
Would-be astronaut  Jerrie Cobb, 67, in front of a full-size mockup of NASA's space shuttle at the Kennedy Center in Florida. NOW is conducting a petition drive aimed at convincing NASA to grant Cobb, a record-setting pilot and Nobel Prize nominee, the space voyage she deserved, but never received.
 
In 1959,  NASA researchers creating a profile of the ideal astronaut wondered if women could withstand the physical and psychological challenges of a space mission. By then, Cobb had set three world records and was elected woman of the year in aviation. Dr. Randolph Lovelace, chairman of NASA's Life Sciences Committee, selected Cobb to be the first women to take the astronaut tests.

In 1960, when she reported for astronaut training, Cobb had already logged over 10,000 flight hours in 64 different types of aircraft, more than any male astronaut. John Glenn had only 5,000 hours.  Cobb also assisted in selecting 25 other women to be tested. After undergoing months of the same rigorous and grueling tests taken by Glenn and other Mercury astronauts, which included long periods of isolation and freezing the inner ears, she passed all phases with exceptional results.  Also among the 13 women (the "Mercury 13") who proved qualified for space travel was Jane Hart, who served on NOW's first national board.

In spite of her test results and her extraordinary talent and ambition, Cobb was denied the chance to become the first woman in space when NASA changed the rules to count only military flight hours toward astronaut qualification - at a time when the military did not let women fly. Under this restriction, no woman could qualify for spa.c.e travel.

On behalf of the Mercury 13 and future women astronauts, Cobb brought the issue before Congress. In 1962, along with Hart, she appeared before the House Space Subcommittee in support of a national program to send women into space. Their efforts were thwarted by the testimony of Glenn, who four months earlier had been the first American to orbit the earth.  Glenn, testifying on behalf of NASA, said: "It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.  It may be undesirable."

Not until 20 years after the Mercury 13 qualified would NASA send Sally Ride into orbit as the first U.S. woman astronaut in space.

Cobb continued her campaign to convince officials to send her into space. Instead, she  was made a consultant and virtually ignored. In 1963, impatient with the treatment, Cobb left NASA and her job as a consultant.  She moved to South America where she used her own plane to fly medicine and supplies to her "indigenous friends" in the Amazon jungle. In 1981 she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her missionary work.

Thirty-eight years after becoming NASA's first female astronaut candidate, Cobb has emerged from the wilds of the Amazon to crusade once again for her chance at space travel.

NASA has received thousands of letters and petitions from individuals and organizations, including Senators Boxer, D-Calif., and Feinstein, D-Calif.  Despite this vast support, NASA explains that Cobb is not a part of their program and they have no intention of flying her.

NOW has urged NASA to include Jerrie Cobb in a future space mission, citing the injustices against her and the need to study weightlessness and aging in women as well as men. Johnson said, "Sexism kept Jerrie Cobb out of space in the 60s. And it cannot be allowed to stand in her way now.  If NASA wants to study the effects of space travel on aging, then women must participate in these flights."

Today, Cobb has accrued more than 55,000 flight hours and she continues to fly. Johnson commends Cobb, "In the face of adversity and years of discrimination, she did not give in to despair. She made so many achievements in aviation when it was strictly all-male territory. Her tenacity and courage are inspiring."

To join NOW's campaign to send Jerrie Cobb into space, visit the NOW web site at www.now.org/actions/cobb.html or call 202-331-0066.
 

"If NASA wants to study the effects of space travel on aging, then women must participate in these flights."
Karen Johnson,
NOW Vice President-Membership


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