jerrie cobb
William P. Straeter/AP
Jerrie Cobb looks at a display at the
national space conference where the
leading space experts gathered in
Tulsa, Okla., on May 26, 1961.

Jerrie Cobb, Almost the First American to Orbit the Earth

March 02, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
Before the age of 20, she learned to fly, got her commercial pilot’s license and taught men to fly. But in spite of her vast experience and astronaut training, Jerrie Cobb was denied the opportunity to fly in space, and continues to rally for the chance today.

Jerrie Cobb’s Early Days

Geraldyn M. “Jerrie” Cobb was born on March 5, 1931, in Norman, Okla. The daughter of Lt. Col. William H. and Helena Butler Stone Cobb, Cobb learned to fly her father’s plane at the age of 12 and earned her private pilot’s license at the age of 16. When she was 18, she earned her commercial pilot’s license.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture, after she earned her pilot’s license, Cobb “devoted all of her energy to flying,” but also played semiprofessional softball and attended Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) for one year.

Cobb’s biography on NASA Quest explains that in the early 1950s, after the end of World War II, many male pilots returned from war, and “no one wanted to hire a girl pilot.” Cobb was forced to make her living by crop dusting and teaching navigation. Later, she took a job at the Miami airport and by the age of 21, she was delivering military bombers and fighter planes to foreign Air Forces around the world.

Cobb’s Notable Accomplishments

While a commercial pilot in the 1950s, Cobb achieved world altitude, speed and distance records; she was still in her 20s. After she became 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 and awarded the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement.

When NASA started selecting the first astronauts in 1959, the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., chose Cobb to be the first woman to undergo the same physical and psychological tests as the Mercury Astronaut Selection Tests. At that time, Cobb had logged more than 10,000 flight hours, more than any male astronaut. John Glenn had only 5,000 flight hours, Latifa Lyles reported for the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1999.

“After weeks of grueling tests, Jerrie passed all three phases with flying colors,” NASA Quest reports.

She was also chosen to be NASA’s consultant for the use of women as astronauts. But “NASA changed the rules to count only military flight hours toward astronaut qualification—at a time when the military did not let women fly,” NOW reports. “Under this restriction, no woman could qualify for space travel.”

In 1962, Cobb brought the issue before the House Space Subcommittee to support sending women into space. But Glenn, who four months earlier became the first American to orbit the Earth, testified on behalf of NASA. According to Lyles, Glenn said: “It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

“This was a devastating and unexpected blow as Jerrie was denied the opportunity to be the first woman to fly in space,” NASA Quest reports. Instead, Russian Valentina Tereshkova became the first.

The Rest of the Story

Cobb resigned from NASA and instead conducted humanitarian aid missions over the Amazon rain forest in South America for more than 38 years. She was honored by the governments of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and France for her humanitarian work, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.

Throughout her career, Cobb has received numerous honors and awards. She was awarded the Harmon International Trophy by President Richard Nixon in 1973, inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame as “the most outstanding aviatrix in America,” and inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2000.

When Senator John Glenn returned to space in the Shuttle Discovery in October 1998, Cobb reiterated her desire to fly in space. Then 67 years old, Cobb said, “I’d give my life to fly in space. I would have then, and I will now.”

Cobb wasn’t alone in her crusade. NOW took up her cause and initiated a campaign, along with lawmakers and educators, to petition NASA to grant Cobb “the space voyage she deserved, but never received.” They wanted NASA to send Cobb into space, like John Glenn, to study the effects of space travel on aging.

Cobb is still waiting.

Most Recent Features