Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was born the right sex at the wrong time to be an astronaut, but that didn’t stop her from flying. The daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel and pilot, Jerrie first flew with her dad for the first time at age 12, was flying for a circus at 16, and by 18 had her commercial pilot’s license.
She wanted to fly for a living, but because of the flood of pilots returning from World War II, and discriminatory attitudes toward female aviators, Jerrie ended up with the less exciting jobs of crop dusting and pipeline patrol.
So she worked harder. And by 19 she was teaching men to fly, having earned her Multi-Engine, Instrument, Flight Instructor, and Ground Instructor ratings, and Airline Transport license. At 21 her flying skills were respected enough that she was delivering fighter planes and bombers to foreign air forces all over the world.
In her free time Jerrie set new world records for speed, distance, and absolute altitude.
1959 was her breakout year, as Cobb was named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association, became one of the few female executives in aviation (taking a position with Aero Design and Engineering Company), and took part in a privately funded research program that came to be known as ‘Mercury 13.’
Could women be astronauts? The records of 700 veteran women aviators were reviewed by Dr. Richard Lovelace who had helped develop the physiological tests for NASA’s astronauts. In the end 13 women pilots passed the Phase 1 testing, three of those were able to take and pass Phase II, but only Jerrie Cobb was able to pass all three phases of testing the male astronauts had been given—including tests typical to a physical exam, exhaustion and respiration tests, response to electric shock and induced vertigo, and aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft.
In other words, Jerrie could do what any male astronaut could do.
She wrote to President Kennedy and then flew to Washington to meet with Vice President Johnson, to advocate for women being allowed to join NASA. In 1962 women were still barred from entrance to Air Force training schools, preventing them from becoming test pilots of military jets—a requirement for NASA astronauts. A special congressional sub-committee was convened in July of 1962, two years before the Civil Rights Act, and the issue of discrimination was debated. However, in the end no action was taken by Congress.
Less than a year later, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. NASA would take sixteen years to catch up, finally opening its doors to women in 1978 with six astronaut candidates, including Sally Ride.
Jerrie Cobb would go on to work for over thirty years flying humanitarian missions—delivering supplies to indigenous tribes, and surveying remote areas to facilitate aid. Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, and Peru have all honored Jerrie for her service, and in 1981 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her charitable efforts.
At 95 years-old, this trailblazer doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. “I have this feeling that life is a spiritual adventure, and I want to make mine in the sky.”
Jerrie Cobb is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.