"The fact that the women are not in this field is just a fact of our social order."

John Glenn
 CNN Newsstand Time
Right Stuff.. Wrong Time
Aired October 25, 1998 - 10:00 p.m. ET
Right Stuff, Wrong Time: As John Glenn prepares for one more ride in
space, another pioneer looks back at her lost chance.
JERRIE COBB, PILOT: We had the right stuff but it was the wrong time.
SHAW: Later this week, John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth,
is scheduled to  space aboard shuttle Discovery as America's
oldest astronaut. Among the spectators watching the launch at Kennedy
Space Center will be Jerrie Cobb. She passed grueling tests to qualify
for space flight in the early '60s; she didn't get to go.
Before his death, our colleague John Holliman was preparing a story on
Cobb for NEWSSTAND. John's successor on the space beat, CNN's Miles
O'Brien, stepped in, and he tells us Cobb is still fighting for a ride
in space.
COBB: As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with the stars,
with the sky, with birds, with airplanes. As soon as I get off the
ground, it is pure freedom.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jerrie Cobb was born to
fly, and she has lived to fly for more than 50 years. Now she is
fighting to fly faster and farther and higher than ever.
O'BRIEN: What would you rather be flying: this or a space shuttle?
COBB: The space shuttle, without a doubt.
ANNOUNCER: We have booster admission and liftoff of the space shuttle
O'BRIEN: If anyone can make a claim to a seat on the space shuttle,
it's Jerrie Cobb. She is the first and foremost of the so-called
Mercury 13: women who in the early '60s, endured the same physical,
psychological and emotional gauntlet as the Mercury 7. But America's
first astronauts never saw it that way.
SENATOR JOHN GLENN, U.S. ASTRONAUT: Roger. Zero G, and I feel fine.
GLENN: What they had gone through was just a physical exam. It was not
lengthy training. The women back then just passing a physical exam did
not meet the other criteria of being a military test pilot; of having
a lot of jet time; super-sonic time.
O'BRIEN: Jerrie Cobb believes she did earn a ticket into space, but
unlike those seven famous fly-boys, she never got it punched.
COBB: I would say people supported me, but they really didn't know a
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Visiting Pittsburgh is that fly spirit, and the
first woman astronaut of America, Ms. Jerrie Cobb.
COBB: The way women were treated in the '60s is entirely different
than the way they are treated now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: America's first woman astronaut. A lady who's
going to go far.
O'BRIEN: This small airfield in Bartlesville, Oklahoma is near her
childhood home of Ponca City.
COBB: Small fields like this were my fields of dreams. You know, I'd
just go out there, and if I couldn't fly, I'd wash an airplane or fuel
it, or do something around airplanes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What made you decide to become a pilot -- how did
it come about?
COBB: Oh, I started flying about 12 years old. My father started
teaching me how to fly.
O'BRIEN (on camera): Tell me about that first flight when you went up
with your father.
COBB: I had been trying for months to get him to take me up, and when
he finally agreed to it, I was just very excited. Rolling down the
pasture was very, very bumpy. I could just see the wheel bouncing and
wondering if the airplane was going to fall apart, you know. But as
soon as the wheel left the ground, that was the smoothest feeling,
just to be floating in the air.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): By the time she was 16, she had her pilot's
license and a piper cub, just like this one. She spent that summer
dropping leaflets for a circus.
COBB: It was flying all day long in a cub and sleeping under the wing
at night. It was one of the most beautiful times of my life.
O'BRIEN: By 1953, she was ready for something bigger and faster, so
she answered an ad for a Miami airline seeking pilots.
COBB: So I hopped in my old Pontiac and drove straight through and got
down there. And they were surprised to find out I was a woman. There
was no way they could hire a woman, that passengers would not even fly
in the same airplane if a woman was in the cockpit. So if I was
serious about wanting to stay in aviation, I should go down the hall
and apply for a stewardess job.
O'BRIEN: Lacking gas money to go home, Jerrie instead found a job as a
clerk at a maintenance hangar on the same field.
COBB: Six or eight months later, a very grumpy pilot arrived in a
military T-6, wanting work on his airplane.
O'BRIEN: His name was Jack Ford, the owner of an airplane delivery
COBB: He was telling me about delivering airplanes, military airplanes
to all over the world, and I was just fascinated.
O'BRIEN: Most aviators could not handle the hazards and dangers of
that type of long distance flying, so Jack Ford was having a hard time
finding qualified pilots. Jerrie Cobb was hired for one flight only.
It turned out to be the beginning of a long relationship, professional
and personal.
COBB: I admired him greatly. I fell in love with him. We were engaged
for two years.
O'BRIEN (on camera): What happened?
COBB: He was killed in an aircraft accident. O'BRIEN (voice-over):
Heart-broken, she returned to the skies with a passion. By the late
'50s, she had broken four world records for speed, distance and
altitude while working as a civilian test pilot. By then, she had
logged over 10,000 hours at the controls of just about every aircraft
imaginable, from old bombers to the hottest fighters. She also caught
the attention of some NASA scientists.
COBB: The top aerospace medicine experts, who had just completed the
test on the Mercury astronauts, asked me to go through the Mercury
astronaut's selection test to see if a woman could pass the same test
that the men had.
nation should commit itself...
O'BRIEN: It was a time when America made space its last frontier...
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: ... to achieving the goal before this decade is
O'BRIEN: A time when President Kennedy pledged to win the race to the
moon. A time Jerrie Cobb spent tossed, turned and some might say,
COBB: I was more than happy to go through anything that they wanted.
There was a series of 87 different tests. You know, everything from
checking the nerves, by putting needles in your arms and legs, to
activate the nerves, to having your inner ears frozen with ice water
injected into the inner ear to make your eyes oscillate with vertigo.
O'BRIEN: While she proved to be equally as fit as any man to become an
astronaut, many still couldn't picture a blonde in space.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Isn't she a honey?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She is a honey.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Meet Ms. Jerrie Cobb.
COBB: Back in the '60s, you know, the first thing they wanted to know
is what are your measurements? I thought they meant height and weight.
I didn't know that they wanted all the other measurements, too.
O'BRIEN: Even though she completed the training in the top two percent
of all astronauts, NASA made the sky her limit. Still, they used her
talents to drum up publicity for the space program. But as time
passed, Jerrie Cobb and the 12 other women, found out they didn't have
the right stuff.
In a bitter and public campaign, Jerrie fought NASA's decision to
reject them. She won a hearing before Congress. Her plea was
compelling, but it was followed by a devastating rebuttal from of all
people, newly-minted national hero John Glenn.
Glenn told the committee, "the men go off and fight the wars and fly
the airplanes and help design and build and test. The fact that the
women are not in this field is just a fact of our social order."
GLENN: All I did was say the truth of what the selection criteria was,
and if people get upset about that, well that is their problem.
O'BRIEN: John Glenn's words not only sealed Jerrie's fate, but changed
the course of history.
ANNOUNCER: A woman blasted into space since the first time in 63.
Russia sent Valentina Tereshkova on a 48-orbit ride.
O'BRIEN: Valentina Tereshkova, a 26-year-old textile worker, finally
broke the gender barrier. Years later, Jerrie met Tereshkova and was
asked the obvious question:
COBB: Why didn't your government send you into space? We just assumed
you would be first, and she was curious why.
O'BRIEN: Defeated and dejected, Jerrie Cobb flew South. Retreating to
the uncharted waters of the Amazon River, she tried to change the
course of her life.
COBB: I hadn't been allowed to be useful in space. It just boiled down
to I just wanted to be useful, so that's when I decided to go to the
Amazon and help the primitive people down there.
O'BRIEN: For more than 30 years now, Jerrie Cobb has devoted her time
flying from remote village to remote village, teaching farming and
offering whatever help she can, flying over land almost as remote as
the moon. But once again, John Glenn has added a new wrinkle to Jerrie
Cobb's life.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Glenn will serve as a payload specialist on
STS-95 scheduled for launch in October 1998.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You deserve to be in space like anybody else,
because you are great.
O'BRIEN: This past spring, the dream of space lured Jerrie back from
South America.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a pleasure to meet you.
O'BRIEN: With encouragement from friends and strangers alike, she came
back to campaign one more time. But this time, she hopes her gender as
well as her age will work in her favor. She is determined to convince
NASA that if Glenn can do it, why can't she? With public pressure
increasing, NASA administrator, Daniel Goldin, summoned her to his
DANIEL GOLDIN, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: I did say to her that we could not
just select her unilaterally and fly her without waiting for the
results for the scientific process.
COBB: It was very discouraging, so much so that I left his office in
tears and figured that, you know, things haven't changed a bit in 40
O'BRIEN: Since then, Jerrie has rallied some powerful friends to her
cause. During a recent ceremony honoring her at Ponca City's pioneer
women's museum, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, surprised everyone,
including Jerrie, with some encouraging words from NASA administrator
Dan Goldin.
SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: He said there's no one in America
more qualified and deserving to be in that same shuttle than Jerrie
GOLDIN: Jerrie Cobb is an outstanding person, and I think she has a
very good chance of being selected if we proceed forward.
O'BRIEN: While exactly not a promise, it is at least a chance for
Jerrie Cobb to finally shoot for the stars.
(on camera): Does NASA owe you a ride?
COBB: NASA doesn't owe me anything. No. It is truly an honor to fly in
space, I want to be there. I want to sense what it is like to be in
space and to feel it, you know, it is just part of me.
[ Email | Astraea homepage | Multiplicity | Religion | Politics | Silly ]