The tale of the two female pilots who could have been the first women in space

More than 500 people have flown in space, which is not a large number. It should be noted that only a minority of them — 65 to be precise — were women.

The first was Russian Valentina Tereshkova who flew in 1963, just two years after Yuri Gagarin’s historic first space flight. The Americans’ first woman in space was Sally Ride, who didn’t fly until 1983. And of course Canada’s Roberta Bondar made history as the first Canadian woman in space in 1992.

But the story might have been different. In another reality, either of two intrepid American aviation pioneers might have been immortalized as the first woman in space. Their names were Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb. 

Both certainly drove hard for a chance to be considered as astronauts — and for more opportunities to go higher, faster, and farther than anyone else — male or female. But they were very different women, with very different approaches to achieving their ultimate goal of spaceflight.

In her new book, spaceflight historian Amy Shira Teitel chronicles the story of two pilots and their campaign to become the first American female astronauts.

The book is called Fighting For Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle For Female Spaceflight

Here is part of her conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the two characters and we’ll begin with Jackie Cochran. Tell me about her.

She’s such a great character. She’s the kind of person that I love: she’s real, no one could ever write her.

Jackie was born into abject poverty in Florida, and she ended up using beauty as the way out. She started working in salons in her 20s.

Fighting For Space by Amy Shira Teitel (Grand Central Publishing)

In 1932, she got the idea of flying from the man who would become her husband. She wanted to actually start her own cosmetics company. And it was the Great Depression, and this man said, “You know, you can’t sell a lot of cosmetics in a car right now. You can cover more ground by flying.” So she got her [pilot’s] licence in 17 days, which is very fast. She was naturally talented at it.

That was 1932. By 1939, she’d won every major aviation award in the country. Her friends included Hap Arnold, Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart. She arrived in the aviation world and took it by storm. She ended up leading the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots in the Second World War and became the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953. She was setting records left right and centre. And she did it all while also running a makeup empire. She wanted it, and she went for it full tilt.

So, that’s Jackie Cochran. Now the other character in your story is Jerrie Cobb. Tell me about her.

Jerrie is 25 years younger than Jackie, which means she came up in a very different world. It was uncommon but not unheard of for a young woman to learn to fly in the 1940s, and Jerrie actually learned to fly during the war, with her dad when she was 12. So Jerrie became one of the first generation of women who got her pilot’s license probably before she learned to drive. She was able to actually make a living and support herself as a pilot. And she did set some records in her own right as well: she set three.

But the real interesting thing, and the thing we need to keep in mind when we’re discussing these two women and their respective merits, is that Jackie was one of the only women in the country to be flying jets and Jerrie’s records and everything she did was in the much slower propeller planes.

Flight Captain Jacqueline Cochrane, when she lead of a group of female US pilots who ferried warplanes from America to the UK, June 13, 1942. (Getty Images)

Now, you describe in your book how they went through the testing that the astronauts went through, and it wasn’t just Jackie and Jerrie that did this. There was a group of women that went through the tests to prove that, yes, they can survive in space. 

What they did was actually just the medical testing. So, 34 men did that testing at the Lovelace Clinic, and seven — as we know — emerged victorious. And the women’s testing was very piecemeal. The men all go as a group because it’s a government program. The women have to find sitters for their kids. They have to take time off work or quit their jobs because women don’t necessarily get time off for medical tests. And 25 ended up going through the same things, and 12 emerged victorious in addition to Jerrie. 

But what they were trying to do was go to Pensacola, Florida to the Naval lab to do simulation testing. This is when you’re strapped into a cockpit upside down and backwards because splash downs from space happened like this at the time. So they were trying to get to this stage as a group to be a united front. And that is the testing that was cancelled without any warning, without any explanation or any notice two days before all the women were supposed to be there.

You do make it very clear in your book that all of this testing that the women were going through was not officially a NASA program. There were no women astronauts at NASA at that time. Lyndon Johnson was the vice president, and he was head of the National Aeronautical Space Council. Where did he stand on the whole program?

LBJ thought women were great and that they could be great secretaries, but he didn’t really think women could rise up to certain heights. But Jackie is one of his closest friends, so he knew women were extremely capable aviators. But he also knew that there was a limit to how much he wanted to put his neck on the line to support women who were at odds with his good friend Jackie.

There’s a very very famous letter. It was in March of 1962. Jerrie Cobb and another one of the women who did the testing, Jeanie Hart, went to LBJ and said, “Here’s our case.” A letter was drafted for LBJ to sign and send to Jim Webb, the head of NASA, basically saying I think it would be good to discuss opening the program to women. LBJ took a pen and wrote “Let’s stop this now” instead of signing it, and then wrote “File” underneath, with the instructions to just put it away and not deal with it anymore. So he was probably the closest person who could actually affect a major change at NASA at the time. Instead LBJ was one of the many people who dealt a death blow with just a simple pen stroke.

Instead of signing this letter, US Vice-President Lyndon Johnson killed any hope women had of becoming astronauts with the stroke of a pen (The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

Wow. Now, that wasn’t the end of it though because Jerrie Cobb took this all the way to Congress. What was the ultimate result?

The ultimate result was just really condescension. I think my favourite example of that is John Glenn making the analogy that his mother could probably pass the pre-season physical for the Washington Redskins football team but couldn’t really play any games. That was what the hearing came down to; medical testing is a tiny fraction of what it takes to be an astronaut. The women had the medical testing, which proves they’re physically fit but it doesn’t give them the background and everything else they need.

Jerrie Cobb sits in the cockpit of a twin engine Aero Commander airplane (The Associated Press)

At these congressional hearings Jerrie Cobb was front and centre, but then Jackie Cochran was brought in. What was her take when she was brought in?

She was opposed to the idea. Jackie comes in and makes a lot of I think unfortunate statements including “When I led the Wasps in the Second World War we trained all these girls, and it was expensive and then we lost them to marriage.” And that was what the media picked up on. Two women say women should go for space, but then one says they just want to get married. But Jackie really did come in and just say she didn’t think it was the right time. So, that’s what she testified and promoted to the politicians. And there was no resolution. It was like “We will recommend to NASA that they think about women down the line.” How noncommittal can you get? And it just kind of ended. It just fizzled from there.

Jackie Cochran in the cockpit of her own airplane (Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

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