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Ada Lovelace Day! My Heroine: Jerry Cobb

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Ada (seen above in a lovely lace gown) wrote the world’s first computer programs for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine invented by, Charles Babbage - Way to go Ada!

I am celebrating this day by writing about one of my favorite women in technology, Jerrie Cobb (above posing next to the Mercury spaceship capsule) . Jerrie was the first woman picked to undergo the grueling astronautical space tests in 1960 to become an astronaut, but was never allowed to take flight into space simply because of her gender.

Ms. Cobb was born Geraldyn M. Cobb in Norman, Oklahoma, and flew in her first plane at age 12. Her love of flight was heavily influenced by her father, Lt. Col. William H. Cobb. He taught her how to fly her first plane, a 1936 Waco bi-wing, and supported her efforts to continue flying. At age 16, she earned her private pilots license, and spent the next couple of years scraping together money to keep flying by giving rides. According to her biography she “slept under the Cub's wing at night” as she traveled around from place to place. By 18, she earned her Commercial Pilot's license, and was ready for her first real job.

Unfortunately, according to NASA Quest, Cobb ran into some trouble with flying in the early 1950’s. With World War II and many of the male pilots returning home from the war, “no one wanted to hire a girl pilot.” At that time she made her living doing the low-end jobs such as crop dusting, teaching navigation, and doing pipeline patrol. However, this didn't last long, because by the age of 21 she was working in Miami airport delivering military bombers and fighter planes to foreign Air Forces around the world.

In her 20s, Cobb became an outstanding pilot with many accolades and awards. She achieved the world altitude, speed, and distance records, was the first woman to participate in the Salon Aeronautique Inernacional in Paris, (the world’s largest air exposition), she was named Pilot of the Year, was awarded the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement, and Named Woman of the Year in Aviation in 1958. 

In 1959, when America was first selecting their astronauts, Jerrie had already set three world’s records and accrued over 10,000 flight hours in 64 different types of aircraft, more than any male astronaut. (John Glenn only had 5,000 flight hours).

In 1960, 6 months after Glenn, she was picked by the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque to be the first woman to undergo the same physical and psychological fitness testing regimen as the Mercury Astronaut Selection Tests. She passed all phases with exceptional results along with 13 other women (called the "Mercury 13") who all proved qualified for space travel.

[Above: Ms. Cobb undergoing the physical and psychological fitness testing regimen at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque. LIFE Magazine 1960]

Sadly, NASA did not recognize the female astronauts as fit for flight even though many of them surpassed the men in testing. At that time, congress had declared that all pilots had to come from military test pilots; however, since women were not allowed to be military test pilots, the odds were stacked against them. Jerrie spoke with President Lyndon B. Johnson about why women should be allowed to fly, but the “big boys” club was against her. President LBJ didn’t want anything to do with it, and Mr. John Glen fought against Jerrie stating that “men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes," and saying women are not astronauts because of our social order.

A year later, in 1961, Russia sent their first woman into space.

After this huge disappointment, Jerrie continued her flight career, becoming one of the most amazing pilots the world has ever seen. She spent the next 38 years helping those less fortunate in the Amazon Jungle which has earned her her numerous aeronautical honors and awards. She has been honored by the countries of France, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. In 1973, President Nixon awarded her the Harmon Trophy as the top woman pilot in the world along with being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian peace flight missions in the Amazon jungle.

In 1998, when John Glenn was allowed to fly back into space, there was renewed interest in Jerrie and the National Organization for Women (NOW) launched a campaign to get Jerrie into space. At that time, Jerrie returned home from South America and said that this is her destiny, “I've been waiting 38 years. I've thought about it all my life. I will do whatever it takes.”

As one of the most dedicated and amazing women, I’ve ever read about, I think Jerrie deserves a ticket into space.

[Photo by Scott Audette, AP/Worldwide
Photos, 2000]

It’s been over 12 years since the petition has started, and Jerrie has still not been allowed to go into space. But, at 79, I think she still deserves a chance. It is ridiculous that we've let a man fly into space twice but never allowed a pilot equal to (or some would say above) his talents fly into space even once. It is time to set the past straight and give Jerrie and her Mercury 13 colleagues a chance to live their dream. Hopefully, we can still do something about it.

The NOW Jerrie Cobb petition for space flight is still up and online. Give thanks to this amazing role model and sign the petition to let her fulfill her destiny as a women astronaut.

Here is the petition web address: http://www.now.org/actions/cobb-petition.html

REFERENCES:


Jerrie Cobb, Almost the First American to Orbit the Earth

National Organization of Women Jerri Cobb Petition

Jerrie Cobb Foundation

State-Born Aviatrix Yearns for Space. 2nd Astronaut Bid Supported

NASA Quest Archives

All things Considered, NPR.

BOOKS:

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America's First Women in Space Program (Gender Relations in the American Experience)

The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Comments

Thanks for writing this inspiring and thoughtful post about a heroine who is new to me!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - 20:06


If you want to see all the other articles and tweets related to Ada Lovelace day do a search for the the hashtag #ald10 on twitter!

Alison Lewis

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - 10:36