Pioneer ‘Astronautrix’ Aims High
She was deep in the Amazon jungle when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon, and she was there, still serving as a missionary pilot, when NASA tapped John Glenn to fly again.
The rain forest has been Jerrie Cobb’s home, and the indigenous people her family, ever since NASA spurned her in the early 1960s--although she passed the same torturous tests taken by Glenn and the six other Mercury astronauts.
Thirty-eight years after becoming NASA’s first female astronaut candidate, Cobb has emerged from the jungle to crusade for the space shot she was promised.
Glenn’s return to orbit this fall at age 77 has given Cobb, and her many supporters, hope.
“I would give my life to fly in space, I really would,” says Cobb, 67, her eyes misting. “It’s hard for me to talk about it,” she apologizes softly, “but I would. I would then, and I will now.”
“It just didn’t work out then, and I just hope and pray it will now.”
For more than three months, NASA has been deluged with letters and petitions urging that Cobb be assigned to a space shuttle flight. “A multitude,” says NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown, unable to provide an exact count.
They include the National Women’s History Project; the American Assn. of University Women of California; James Inhofe and Don Nickles, the senators from Oklahoma, Cobb’s home state; Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California; and a Fresno Pacific University education instructor who started the “Send Jerrie into Space” campaign.
“It’s the fair thing to do for someone who was trained for three years to become an astronaut and then made a consultant,” says the instructor, Donald Dorough. “She’s still trying to figure out what that [consultant] means. It doesn’t mean flying in space.”
But NASA’s Brown says: “At this time, there are no plans to fly her.”
Dorough wrote to Cobb in late January, two weeks after NASA announced that Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, would become the oldest person in space in October as part of a geriatric study.
Cobb didn’t see Dorough’s letter until she visited Florida in March to collect six months’ worth of mail. She returned to the headwaters of the Amazon to tell her indigenous friends she’d be gone for a while, parked her twin-engine bush plane in Panama, and came back to plead her case to aviator groups, reporters, anyone who would listen.
Cobb even wrote to Glenn, congratulating him on his upcoming space shuttle flight. And by the way, she asked, “Can you find it in your heart to support me for a space flight?”
By the end of June, nearly two months later, she still hadn’t heard back. Glenn spokesman Jack Sparks says the senator has been too busy to answer mail but will get in touch. “He considers Jerrie Cobb a friend,” Sparks says.
Visiting the Kennedy Space Center, Cobb insisted she has no hard feelings toward NASA or “the boys"--Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts. She just wants the same chance as Glenn.
“If they think it’s important to study an older man, I can’t see why it’s not important to study an older woman,” the fit-looking Cobb explained. “But I really have never wanted to get into the man-woman thing.”
It was a man-woman thing from the start.
NASA wanted jet test pilots for its initial astronauts, and back then that meant only men. Military men.
It didn’t matter that Cobb was a record-setting pilot who had logged more than 10,000 hours in aircraft. Or that in 1960, just like the Mercury men, she had ice water poured into her ears, a 3-foot rubber hose pushed down her throat, and needles jammed into her nerves. Or that 12 other female pilots subsequently passed the astronaut physical exams, conducted in secrecy by NASA.
“The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them,” Glenn testified before a House subcommittee in July 1962, five months after his historic rocket ride. “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
“There are many unknowns,” echoed Scott Carpenter, who followed Glenn into orbit, “and it is important for us to eliminate as many of these unknowns before the flights take place as is possible.”
When reminded of his comments, Carpenter, now 73, says he always believed women were as capable of space flight as men. In the feverish competition with the Soviets, however, “we didn’t want to do anything that would degrade our effort.”
“What we wanted,” stresses Mercury flight director Chris Kraft, “were people who were used to putting their lives on the line daily and making in-flight decisions that would not be tainted by fear.”
“Had we lost a woman back then because we decided to fly a woman rather than a man,” says Kraft, “we would have been castrated.”
Instead of an astronaut, or astronautrix or astronette as the news media dubbed her, NASA made Cobb a consultant. She traveled across the country, drumming up support for the space program. One week after commenting, “I’m the most unconsulted consultant in any government agency,” she was out.
So ended Cobb’s chance of becoming the first woman in space. That honor went to the Soviet Union’s Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. That year, a heartbroken Cobb moved to South America and began ferrying medicine and supplies for church groups. She formed a nonprofit foundation to finance the effort.
It was there, on July 20, 1969, that Cobb learned via her plane radio that Armstrong and Aldrin had landed on the moon. She couldn’t wait to share the news with the tribe at her refueling stop.
In her recent autobiography, “Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot,” Cobb recalls being bewildered by the Indians’ indifference until a young shaman patiently explained: “Even the youngest among us knows that one of our shaman ancestors, Birdman, flew to the moon many times.”
That night, Cobb danced on the wings of her plane in the moonlight. “You are fulfilling my deepest dream,” she whispered to the men on the moon. “Vaya con Dios, my brothers.”
Twelve years later, Cobb was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in the rain forest. And two years after that, in 1983, an American woman, Sally Ride, finally soared into space.
Only in 1995 did NASA launch its first female space pilot, Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins. Next January she goes up again, as NASA’s first woman space commander.
Cobb attended Collins’ 1995 shuttle launch, as did most of the 11 surviving female astronaut candidates from the early 1960s who call themselves the Flats, short for Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees.
One of them, Myrtle “K” Cagle, 73, a pilot and airplane mechanic from Macon, Ga., wishes Cobb the best and “would be there to see her off.” But she stops short of saying Cobb would be the best of their bunch. So does Jerri Truhill.
“They ought to send all of us,” says Truhill, 68, a retired pilot from Dallas. However, “if she can get them to send her, more power to her.”
Cobb says she’ll do whatever it takes, as long as there’s hope.
“I won’t sit here endlessly, no. I will not waste my life,” she says. “Just like the last 38 years. I could have camped out on NASA’s doorsteps, but I would have wasted a lot of fun times, a lot of great times, and a lot of help that I’ve been able to give other people.”