Negative Space In the 1960s, 13 who passed the rigorous tests for space flight were grounded because of their gender. Now, there's a campaign to put one of them -- Jerry Cobb -- into orbit.

October 20, 1998|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

Once again Jerrie Cobb has flown into John Glenn's airspace. She is a shadow on his wing, dimming the hero's aura that emanates from the first American to go into orbit.

The celebrated, 77-year-old senator is the focus of the next NASA space shuttle flight, on which he will reprise his historic 1962 trip into space -- and become the oldest human being ever lifted into the void. His mission during the nine-day flight on Discovery, starting Oct. 29, is to study the effects of weightlessness on the bodies of older people.

But there are some niggling doubts about the legitimacy of his mission, about his fitness for the project, about the fairness of choosing him.

Considerations of fairness are what is driving Don Dorough, an education instructor at Fresno State University in California. When he read that Glenn would get another chance to go into space, his thoughts turned to Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb.

Despite qualifications equal to most of the men in Glenn's original Mercury program, Cobb never got her chance to experience space flight. Many think she was unfairly deprived, as were other women who aspired to be astronauts in the early years of the space program.

"I knew Glenn had testified against women becoming astronauts," Dorough said. "Jerrie had testified to the Congress in 1962, urging NASA to put women in space. Glenn, at that same committee hearing, testified to the contrary."

What Glenn told a House subcommittee on the selection of astronauts was this:

"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."

He did add, "It may not be desirable."

Cobb, only 30 at the time and already the holder of four world aviation records for speed, distance and altitude, came to know how undesirable it really was. Her dreams smashed, she went off and spent much of the rest of her life flying humanitarian missions into the Amazon basin.

"I wanted to go to the most remote place in the world," she said recently from Sun City, Fla. "A place where an airplane is of the most use -- and a pilot."

She has been flying mercy missions -- carrying small amounts of seed, some vaccines, antibiotics, anti-venom -- ever since, with no fixed address either in this country or anywhere in South America.

"I live in the jungle. That is my home now, with the indigenous people. I fly between the tribes. ... It is all communal living."

Her work, commissioned by missionaries of various Protestant denominations and by Catholic bishops in Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru, earned her a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.

Now, on behalf of Cobb, and 12 other pioneering women who never got a chance at space -- the so-called Mercury 13 -- Dorough has launched a campaign to include Cobb on a future shuttle flight. He has recruited the National Organization for Women, two organizations of female pilots, the National Association of University Women chapters of California, Colorado, Connecticut and Maine, and the National Women's History Project to the cause.

Also on board are Oklahoma's two U.S. senators, James Inhofe and Don Nickles -- Cobb was born in Norman, Okla., in 1931 -- and six of the 11 surviving Mercury 13: Wally Funk, Bea Steadman, Sarah Ratley, Janey Hart, Rhea Waltman, and Jerri Truhill.

This formidable array has generated "hundreds" of letters and calls to NASA, a "steady stream," in the words of Dwayne Brown, an agency spokesman. But Brown was anything but encouraging.

"We have no plans to fly Jerrie Cobb, or any other elderly individual at this time," he said. "We are expecting an extraordinary amount of data [from Glenn] which will take months, maybe even years, to analyze. If something shows up that may warrant additional research, the possibility does exist of NASA flying another elderly individual."

"Possibility," he emphasized, is the operative word.

The campaign to put the 67-year-old flier into space continues.

Reached at her Texas home, Jerri Truhill said, "We felt that Jerrie had been the first one to go through the astronauts' test, and Jerrie is still flying -- seriously flying -- as we all used to. ... If anybody had a chance, it would be Jerrie."

Truhill admits to a deep bitterness about being denied a chance to fly into space. "It's still there," she says. "It was pretty brutal."

Oh, those Russians

In the early 1960s a Russian satellite was circling the globe, and a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, had already become the first man in space. The United States was playing catch up under the intense scrutiny of an anxious public. Newspapers and magazines were full of articles about the space program and astronauts -- all men.

From a large group of male applicants to NASA only seven men survived the rigorous physical testing to qualify. They became -- the Mercury 7. Later, 25 women were invited to take the same tests by the same laboratory that tested the men. Thirteen passed. They became the Mercury 13.

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