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Jerrie Cobb dies at 88; denied a trip to space, she was first female astronaut candidate

Jerrie Cobb dies at 88; denied a trip to space, she was first female astronaut candidate
Jerrie Cobb in 1961 with a display of rockets at a national space conference in Tulsa, Okla. (Associated Press)

America's first female astronaut candidate, pilot Jerrie Cobb, who pushed for equality in space but never reached its heights, has died at her home in Florida.

Cobb died March 18 following a brief illness, said Miles O'Brien, a family spokesman. She was 88.

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In 1961, Cobb became the first woman to pass NASA’s astronaut screening process. Altogether, 13 women passed the arduous physical testing regimen and became known as the Mercury 13. But NASA already had its Mercury 7 astronauts, all jet test pilots and all military men, and none of the Mercury 13 ever reached space, which left Cobb bitter.

"We seek, only, a place in our nation's space future without discrimination," she later told a special House subcommittee on the selection of astronauts.

Instead of making her an astronaut, NASA tapped her as a consultant to promote the space program. But she was dismissed after commenting: "I'm the most unconsulted consultant in any government agency."

My country, my culture, was not ready to allow a woman to fly in space.


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She wrote in her 1997 autobiography "Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot," that she was held back because she was a woman.

''My country, my culture, was not ready to allow a woman to fly in space," she wrote.

Cobb served for decades as a pilot delivering humanitarian aid in the Amazon jungle.

"She should have gone to space, but turned her life into one of service with grace," tweeted Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and a former NASA scientist.

The Soviet Union launched the first woman into space in 1963: Valentina Tereshkova. NASA didn't send a woman into orbit until 1983, when Sally Ride flew in the space shuttle.

Cobb and other surviving members of the Mercury 13 attended the 1995 shuttle launch of Eileen Collins, NASA's first female space pilot and later its first female space commander.

"Jerrie Cobb served as an inspiration to many of our members in her record breaking, her desire to go into space, and just to prove that women could do what men could do," said Laura Ohrenberg, of the Ninety-Nines Inc., an international organization of licensed women pilots.

Still hopeful, Cobb emerged in 1998 to make another pitch for space as NASA prepared to launch Mercury 7 astronaut John Glenn — the first American to orbit the Earth — on shuttle Discovery at the age of 77.

Cobb, who was then in her late 60s, maintained that the geriatric space study should also include an older woman.

"I would give my life to fly in space, I really would," Cobb said in 1998. "It's hard for me to talk about it, 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," she added.

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It didn't. NASA hasn’t flown another senior citizen in space, male or female, since.

Geraldyn Cobb was born on March 5, 1931, in Norman, Okla., the second daughter of a military pilot and his wife. She flew her father's open cockpit Waco biplane at age 12 and got her private pilot's license four years later.

The Mercury 13's story is told in a recent Netflix documentary and a play based on Cobb's life, "They Promised Her the Moon," is currently running at the Old Globe theater in San Diego.

In her autobiography, Cobb described how she danced on the wings of her plane in the Amazon moonlight, when learning via radio on July 20, 1969, that Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on the moon.

"Yes, I wish I were on the moon with my fellow pilots, exploring another celestial body,” she wrote. “How I would love to see our beautiful blue planet Earth floating in the blackness of space. And see the stars and galaxies in their true brilliance, without the filter of our atmosphere. But I'm happy flying here in Amazonas, serving my brethren. 'Contenta, Senor, contenta.' (I am happy, Lord, happy.)"

Dunn writes for the Associated Press

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