Geraldyn “Jerrie” M. Cobb, a noted aviation pioneer and fierce advocate for women flying into space, died Thursday at her home in Florida, her family has said. She was 88.
Cobb is perhaps most well known for her participation in what became known as the “Mercury 13,” a group of 13 women who passed preliminary screening processes in 1960 and 1961 to determine their suitability as astronauts under the guidance of Dr.
Randolph Lovelace. Cobb scored in the top 2 percent of all who had taken the battery of tests for candidates previously, including both women and men.
However, the privately funded effort was not officially sanctioned by NASA. A Netflix documentary about the experience, released in 2018, offered a clear verdict for why women were excluded from NASA in the space agency’s early days—”good old-fashioned prejudice,” as one of the participants said.
But Cobb’s life was more than just this experience. Born on March 5, 1931 in Norman, Oklahoma, Cobb passed her private pilot’s test at age 16 and earned a commercial pilot’s license at age 18. As there were few opportunities for women pilots in the post-war era, she worked odd jobs that allowed her to keep up her flying habit, including dropping circus leaflets from the air, crop dusting, waiting tables, and playing on a professional women’s softball team.
In the 1950s, Cobb attempted to set several records for air speed, altitude, and distance; became the first woman to fly in the Paris Air Show; and was just the fourth American awarded Gold Wings of the Federacion Aeronautique International.
After the Mercury 13 incident, Congress began investigating why NASA decided not to fly women who had similar qualifications to the men carrying out the Mercury flight program. Cobb was among those called to speak, giving compelling testimony in an attempt to open NASA’s early spaceflight programs to women.
During a special subcommittee hearing In 1962, Cobb told lawmakers, “We women pilots who want to be part of the research and participation in space exploration are not trying to join a battle of the sexes. As pilots, we fly and share mutual respect with male pilots in the primarily man’s world of aviation. We very well know how to live together in our profession. We see, only, a place in our Nation’s space future without discrimination.”
She maintained this belief throughout her life. When John Glenn flew into space in 1998 at the age of 78 and for the purposes of geriatric research, Cobb said NASA should send a second person into space for the same purpose—a woman, and why not her. But despite her meeting with Glenn and NASA administrator Dan Goldin at the time, the agency never flew another such mission.
Eventually, women would break through at NASA with the advent of the space shuttle program. In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. And when Eileen Collins became NASA’s first female shuttle commander in July 1999, Cobb joined other members of the Mercury 13 at the launch, in VIP seats, at the invitation of Collins. The shuttle commander attributed her place, in part, to the advocacy of Cobb and others.
The space agency has gradually become more diverse and, most recently, of its last two astronaut classes (2013 and 2017), nine of the 20 astronaut candidates were women. And in 2017, Peggy Whitson, who has flown into space three times, broke the record for most time spent in space by a US astronaut, with a cumulative total of 665 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station. On Wednesday, NASA announced that another woman, Christina Koch, would spend nearly a year in space. Cobb may have passed away, but her legacy lives on in orbit today.