Bring back some good or bad memories


August 15, 2023

Jerrie Cobb, America’s First Female Astronaut Candidate

Jerrie Cobb was born in Norman, Oklahoma on March 5, 1931. With a pilot for a father, Jerrie took to aviation at an early age, first flying with her father at age 12. At 16 she was soaring over the Great Plains, dropping announcements for arriving circuses. She earned her private pilot’s license in high school at 17, and her commercial pilot’s license by 18. By age 19, Jerrie was teaching men to fly, and at 21 she was delivering military fighters and four-engine bombers to foreign air forces worldwide.

After WWII ended along with the return of many male pilots, Jerrie faced sex discrimination as she was forced to take less sought-after jobs such as patrolling pipelines and crop dusting. However, even with this professional setback, she went on to set three aviation world records by the age of 29: the 1959 world record for nonstop long-distance flight, the 1959 world light-plane speed record, and a 1960 world altitude record for lightweight aircraft of 37,010 ft. In 1961, Cobb was appointed as a consultant to the NASA space program.

At the time, NASA employed very few women in positions with sub-professional classification and had limited options for promotions. Starting in 1960, however, Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II, NASA’s head physician, began rigorous tests to determine if it would be possible to send women to space. Jerrie was among the 19 women tested. With the physical challenges of space unknown, potential astronauts were put through arduous testing that included sensory deprivation, electric shock, physical endurance on treadmills and blowing up balloons until they were exhausted. Those being tested needed to be in prime physical condition and were often worked until they could no longer physically keep going. In reality, most of the tests were much more harsh than anything that was experienced in space. Of the 19 women who went through his tests, 13 passed, including Jerrie.

Jerrie and other First Lady Astronaut Trainees, known as FLATs, surpassed many of the men tested with higher scores on several of the tests. Additionally, Jerrie and several of the other women had more flying experience than many Mercury 7 male astronauts. For the Mercury 7, the final test had been piloting a jet. However, that could only be done on a military base and the FLATs were denied that opportunity. They needed permission to use military facilities and NASA refused to support Dr. Lovelace's request. This final obstacle led Jerrie to take action against NASA.

Jerrie refused to allow NASA’s blatant discrimination to go unchallenged. She and fellow FLAT Janey Hart testified in front of the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Astronautics in 1962. They testified as a part of a larger investigation into NASA's discriminatory hiring practices. Jerrie and Janey presented evidence showing that women were more cost effective and better equipped for space, but the committee was won over by Mercury 7 astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. They testified on NASA’s behalf against letting women join the space program. The men stated that astronauts should have jet flight experience, which women could not get. ​Despite her first attempt being unsuccessful, Jerrie continued to testify in front of congress on the issue throughout the 60’s. Her interviews, testimonies and the press coverage surrounding her testing and removal from the space program raised public awareness and made significant activist groups take up the issue of representation in space.

In 1978, 20 years after Jerrie began her fight for women in space, NASA hired a new class of astronauts which included women, African-Americans and Asian-Americans for the first time. The five women that were a part of this group achieved many impressive firsts for American women. One of the five, Sally Ride, became the first American woman to go to space, a significant victory in the battle against the long lasting sexist policies of NASA. Jerrie’s courageous efforts made it possible for American women to go to space.

In 1999, NASA astronaut Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a space mission. Jerrie was invited to witness the liftoff, and before Collins left, she recognized Jerrie and the FLATs, stating that if it weren’t for their work, she would not have the opportunity of commanding a space mission. Jerrie was finally able to see her dream of a woman space shuttle commander come to fruition. Since this historic moment, women have continued to make progress in space exploration. Women and minority representation at NASA continues to grow, although it is not yet equal in every department. As more women become astronauts, they continue to demonstrate what Jerrie believed to be true all along: that they are just as capable as male astronauts.

On March 18, 2019, thirteen days after her 88th birthday, Cobb died at her home in Florida.


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