The Real Story of NASA's First Female Astronauts
Illustration by Michael Koelsch

The Real Story of NASA's First Female Astronauts

Space is so close she feels like she can almost touch it. Nestled inside the Aero Commander, 27-year-old Geraldyne "Jerrie" Cobb coaxes her plane to 30,000 feet and then higher still. The oxygen canister and the rest of the equipment in the plane begin to float as Cobb stares out at the bluest sky she has ever seen, boundless, stretching into the infinite black reach of glittering stars and distant planets. She can barely breathe as the aircraft pushes against the invisible bounds of Earth's atmosphere, but she stays as long as she can, alone, peering out from her perch in the pilot's seat on the edge of world.

And then she lands, combs her hair, dabs on some lipstick, and slips into her high heels before climbing out of the plane. She pins on the enigmatic smile she's cultivated to cover her nerves for years, ever since the local press discovered "the girl pilot."

Cobb began learning to fly when she was 12, got her solo pilot's license at 16, and earned both her private pilot's license and her commercial license by 20. Reporters are there when she steps out of the plane. After all, the slim blond is breaking world records, and that makes good copy.

She doesn't speak much, but she's learned to play the game, posing demurely and humoring the reporters' questions, which range from queries about her cooking skills to asking about her fear of grasshoppers and her measurements.

She is the perfect astronaut, decides Dr. Randolph Lovelace, head of the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research, a private clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So he administers more than 75 tests, everything from shooting ice-cold water into her ears to placing her in an isolation tank for hours at a time. Cobb emerges sure she'll be selected to join NASA, become an astronaut, and see the stars up-close, to satisfy her "urge to feel infinite."

But it's 1959. She doesn't get the call. It will be 20 years before NASA allows women into the astronaut program and even longer before the first female astronaut, Sally Ride, makes it to space.

"[Cobb] was ahead of her time. All of the women selected for that program were," says Margaret Weitekamp, a historian who wrote one of the first books about what was dubbed the Mercury 13 program. "Cobb was fantastically qualified, but she was a woman, and that meant she was never going to be an astronaut. That was the way it was."

Though many of the women, all pilots, selected to go through physical testing to become astronaut candidates believed the tests offered a real chance of space travel, in reality, Cobb and the other 12 female pilots who were ultimately tested, ended up being show ponies, the lady astronauts who posed for photos but never got close to being launched into space.

Many of the women have spent the ensuing decades living their lives and sometimes pushing back against a story that wants to remember them only for the one thing they didn't do.

Most have moved on.

But Cobb's story isn't that clear-cut. "Why don't people talk about the things she accomplished? She was one of the best pilots of her generation, easily in the top five, but it all stays focused on the one thing she didn't do," says Al Hallonquist, an amateur aviation historian who has studied the Mercury 13 project for more than 20 years.

One of the greatest pilots of a generation never went to space, and when she lost her last chance, she left everything behind, finding it too painful to even speak of the Mercury 13 or her dream.

Then she disappeared. Some of the remaining women in the Mercury 13 believe Cobb is dead. She's not. She lives on Dower Way just south of Tampa, anonymously moving through a world where most people will never know the small 87-year-old was set to become the first woman to fly in outer space.

Jerrie Cobb fought to become the first woman astronaut.
Jerrie Cobb fought to become the first woman astronaut.
Photo via NASA

Women have been involved in aviation since the first airplanes were invented. In the early days, women were called aviatrices, and though females were generally not allowed to fly commercially, many made names for themselves performing in aerial shows, competing in air races, and pulling off feats by establishing records in distance and aerobatics.

When World War II broke out, women were not allowed in combat, but female pilots joined the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, a paramilitary outfit. Over the course of the war, more than 1,000 female pilots flew every type of military aircraft, logging more than 60 million miles collectively. The women ferried planes from factories to U.S. Army Air Forces bases, chauffeured military brass, and worked as test pilots.

Passengers were known to refuse to ride on a plane piloted by a female, and the parents of Jerri Truhill, one of the members of the Mercury 13, threatened to put her in a nunnery when she announced she wanted to be a pilot. As the United States and Russia entered the Space Race in the late 1950s and the federal space program was established, it was not an enormous leap for Lovelace, who had once hopped out of a plane at 36,000 feet to investigate the effects of a high-altitude parachute jump, to consider women going into outer space as a real possibility.

Lovelace thought women might be better suited to the task because, on average, women are lighter and smaller and require less food and oxygen than men. Women are also known to have fewer heart problems and have tested better than men in isolation studies.

Astronaut candidates were supposed to be U.S. citizens who held college degrees, were jet test pilots under the age of 35, stood less than six feet tall, and had the psychological mettle to handle spaceflight and the physical stamina to pass Lovelace's tests, but there were no formal stipulations about gender.

Lovelace shopped his idea around to the military and to NASA, where he had already designed and administered the series of tests to the male Mercury candidates, but no one was interested. The female astronaut candidate testing got off the ground only when Jackie Cochran, a wealthy female pilot, agreed to fund the tests. With Cochran's backing, Lovelace began exploring whether putting women in space was a real option, starting with Cobb.

"Randy Lovelace was, in many ways, a visionary," Weitekamp says. "His interest in women participating was very grounded in that time; he was thinking they would be someone to do the secretarial work, the pink-collar jobs he thought would be a part of space. But he also started investigating women and found that women's physiologies are just as capable as men's. "

In February 1960, Cobb arrived at the Lovelace Foundation for the first round of tests. Just over a year before this, the male Mercury candidates had been there for the same thing — an experience that astronaut Michael Collins later described as a series of indignities and uncertainties where the subject is "poked, prodded, pummeled, and pierced" and where "no orifice is inviolate, no privacy respected."

For a week, Cobb was given more than 30 physical and psychological tests, measuring everything from the amount of blood in her body to the health of her heart, which doctors investigated by hooking her up to electrocardiogram sensors, strapping her to a table, and tilting her body at angles that would strain and expose any weaknesses in the organ.

Once she had completed the first portion of testing at the Lovelace Foundation in February 1960, Cobb went to Pensacola, where the U.S. Navy gave Lovelace's team special permission to use its aeromedical facilities, including centrifugal machines and pressure chambers, to conduct more tests.

Cobb also helped Lovelace comb through a pool of roughly 700 female pilots before he ultimately invited 24 women to take the astronaut candidate test. One of them was Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk, who had never seemed to fit in anywhere outside of her parents' home in Taos, New Mexico. But when she slid into the pilot's seat of a plane at the age of 16, she felt like Amelia Earhart, right down to the haircut. Within three years, she was flying professionally, and by 22, she was a flight instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with hundreds of hours already logged in the skies.

When Funk heard about the testing, she called Lovelace and asked to be included. "My mind lit up with the idea of going to space. I decided I was going to do it immediately," Funk says.

Ultimately, the group that completed the first phase of testing was composed of 13 women ranging in age from 23 to 41. Some were professional working pilots, and some were homemakers.

Gene Nora Jessen was one of this group. At 16, she had been riding along as a member of the Civil Air Patrol when the pilot gave her the stick and let her fly for a few minutes. He said she was a natural, and Jessen decided she would be a pilot. Her family didn't even own a car, but she scraped together the money for lessons and became a flight instructor at the University of Oklahoma before she had even graduated from the college.

"The Mercury Seven had just been selected, the first men who would become astronauts," Jessen recalls. "The magazines and the newspapers were full of stories on them. It was all anyone could talk about. To have even a bit of knowledge about the space program, to be involved and participate in some way, it was something I had to do. I think we all felt that way."

Jerrie Cobb underwent a battery of tests, including the injection of ice water into her ears and this 1960 wind-tunnel experience.
Jerrie Cobb underwent a battery of tests, including the injection of ice water into her ears and this 1960 wind-tunnel experience.
Photo via NASA

Nobody was supposed to know about the women's testing program until Lovelace presented his initial findings based on Cobb's test results at a conference in Switzerland at the end of 1960, but word began to spread.

During an annual air race in California, the women crammed together into a tiny motel room, and Cobb locked the door and pulled the curtains. Then they sat together and whispered about possibly becoming astronauts.

In 1961, Jessen quit her job after her boss refused to give her time off to attend the second phase of testing involving Navy jets at the Pensacola base. Funk was packed and had already bought her plane ticket to Florida. A third candidate, Sarah Ratley, who had flown for the first time in Kansas at the age of 14 and become an engineer, didn't hesitate to inform her employer she would need to leave in the middle of a project so she could complete the testing.

But five days before they were due to arrive at the naval base in September 1961, a telegram summarily informed them the testing would not happen.

Cobb hopped on a plane to Washington, D.C., and tracked down the chief of naval operations, who explained the tests were canceled because NASA did not want to test women. Unbeknownst to the women, NASA administrator James Webb had disavowed involvement in the testing and the Navy refused to move forward. So Lovelace, who would end up being appointed NASA's chief of space medicine, withdrew his request.

When President John Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress in May 1961 and announced the United States was going to the moon, "that was it," Weitekamp says. "For NASA, after that, there's no longer room for experimenting. Everything is focused on this goal."

From that point on, NASA was locked on choosing white, Protestant jet test pilots, mostly from the Midwest. There was no longer interest in pursuing any avenues of research that did not lead directly to an astronaut planting an American flag on the moon.

Only Cobb had been allowed to finish all three phases of the physical testing. She had passed with scores that rivaled those of one of the Mercury Seven's top performers, John Glenn, but it didn't matter.

Months later, in July 1962, Cobb slid into a chair next to Janey Hart, the wife of Democratic Michigan Sen. Phil Hart and a mother of eight, who had joined Cobb to try to force Congress to revive the program. The pair had worked for months, writing letters to Kennedy and to then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was heavily involved in the political side of NASA. Appearing in the offices of scores of congressmen, Cobb and Hart argued that women deserved to be included in the astronaut program. Their efforts garnered some interest from Congress, and a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics was convened.

Cobb was reticent by nature, keeping an enigmatic smile in place at all times to cover her nerves. She presented a good front before the congressmen.

Sitting in the hearing, conscious of a clutch of reporters and photographers, Cobb kicked off her heels and tried to get comfortable, staring up at the dais. She and Hart seemed to gain some traction with the subcommittee the first day of testimony.

But on the second day, Glenn, who had become the first to launch into manned orbit that February, appeared before the committee.

His words carried enormous weight. He argued that testing women or doing anything that took funding away from the main mission to go to the moon was a waste of time and resources. "I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized," Glenn told the subcommittee. "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."

The subcommittee sided with Glenn.

In 1963, the Soviets sent a woman into space, and the novelty of a lady astronaut was gone. In 1965, Lovelace died in a plane crash when his pilot flew into a canyon wall, and that was the end of any chance of reviving the program.

All of the women dealt with the disappointment differently. Hart focused on the nascent women's rights movement. Ratley continued to study engineering and later married. Jessen became a pilot for stunt shows designed to sell airplanes where she met her husband and went on to start a flight school she still runs with him. But not all moved on with their lives.

Funk ran off to Europe, she says. She didn't look at a newspaper or follow the congressional hearings over the question of women in space, she says now. Once she returned, she gradually found ways to take the physical tests to become an astronaut. She called in favors from university friends, sometimes just surprising people and asking if they would run tests on her.

And then there was Jerrie Cobb.

Gene Nora Jessen (left), Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle, and Bernice Steadman of the Mercury 13 posed outside Launch Pad 39B near the space shuttle Discovery in this photograph from 1995.
Gene Nora Jessen (left), Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle, and Bernice Steadman of the Mercury 13 posed outside Launch Pad 39B near the space shuttle Discovery in this photograph from 1995.
Photo via NASA

These days, some people say Cobb is living in the Amazon with the indigenous tribes. Others believe she's dead. None of it is true.

Cobb accepted a job with NASA as a consultant on the matter of women going to space, but in 1965 she quit and flew to the Amazon to give food, clothing, shoes, and basic medical supplies to the natives. She established the Jerrie Cobb Foundation to handle donations that funded her missionary work and spent more than 40 years making countless runs to drop off more clothes and medical supplies and seeking to convert anyone whenever she spied a chance. (In 1981, an Oklahoma congressman nominated her for a Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work, although she did not win.)

But she wasn't living in the Amazon full-time. In the 1960s, Cobb shared an old three-story house with Ivy Coffee, an Oklahoma journalist who had chronicled Cobb's career since the would-be astronaut began making headlines in the little town of Ponca City. Janet Reitman, a writer who would eventually co-author Cobb's first autobiography, Woman Into Space, also stayed at the house.

Though Cobb was devoted to her work in the jungle, she still wanted to become an astronaut, an urge that quietly remained inside her for the next four decades. She kept herself fit, competed in air races and appeared at air shows, published a pair of autobiographies, and even allowed some journalists and writers to travel with her. When she wasn't in the Amazon, she lived in a modest home in Florida and kept a place in Oklahoma. She was often identified as the woman who was almost an astronaut, and she didn't seem to shy away from that description.

Meanwhile, Funk gradually annoyed the other members of the group with her continued insistence that she was going to space. When women were finally accepted to NASA in 1978, Funk began reapplying. She sent in her application four times before giving up. Her relentless drive has left the other remaining members of the Mercury 13 perplexed. "She did so many things and accomplished so much, but she just can't seem to get over this," Ratley says.

Cobb bided her time. And then, in 1998, it was announced that Glenn, by then a senator, would be launched on the space shuttle Discovery to allow scientists to examine how space affects the human body. It helped that they had Glenn's Lovelace test results, which had chronicled the state of his body when he became an astronaut, down to the smallest details.

Cobb saw her chance and "came out of the Amazon," according to dozens of stories written about her at the time. She promoted her second autobiography, published in 1997, granted scores of interviews, contacted national women's rights organizations, and even asked the remaining members of the Mercury 13 to sign a petition asking NASA to include her in the age study.

NASA officials were not persuaded. Glenn went back to space. Cobb never launched.

"Jerrie really believed in it, and she may have wanted it more than anyone else," Ratley says. "Even in her 70s, she was still trying. But after that, she became more of an introvert."

Al Hallonquist, a retired police officer and amateur space historian, met the remaining members of the Mercury 13 when he attended the space shuttle launch in 1999 after astronaut Eileen Collins became the first female shuttle commander.

Hallonquist became an informal manager for some members of the group, running a website devoted to their stories and acting as a mediator when reporters and people from the entertainment industry made contact. "There have been tons of people preying on the girls," Hallonquist says. "Every time the public has remembered them, people come out of the woodwork and try to get things out of them. I've tried to help vet people and protect them."

All kinds of characters have popped up over the years. A producer who optioned their story rights in the 1990s dubbed the group the Mercury 13 and then did nothing else with the material. David Adair, an AM radio host who espouses various conspiracy theories about space, including claims the moon is hollow, befriended the remaining members of the Mercury 13 beginning in the 1990s. He eventually purchased the rights to their stories and co-wrote a screenplay he's been shopping around Hollywood for years. (In 2016, Hidden Figures, a film about African-American female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the Space Race, won several Oscar nominations.)

Some of the women had already died, but those who remained were becoming a part of history as they aged, and they had a story to tell.

Except for Cobb. A woman named Ruth Lummis became her representative and began to handle all visitors, phone calls, and emails to the point that no one was able to contact Cobb without going through Lummis.

The two settled in Sun City Center, a senior retirement community 27 miles south of Tampa, shortly after Glenn's launch. Jack Symonds lived across the street for a few years beginning in 2001, and he and Cobb, always wearing her trademark ponytail while she worked in her yard, struck up a friendship. They would sit on Cobb's porch talking. When the conversation turned to flying, Cobb invariably grew angry about NASA all over again.

"She really wanted to do it, to get in there, and she knew that it was never going to happen after Glenn went back up and she still wasn't allowed," Symonds recalls. "She was so proud of what she had done and was certain she could have gone to space. She was bitter, just vehement, about Glenn's part in all of this."

Adair, the radio host, hired a private investigator to track Cobb down in 2012 when she was being inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He persuaded local law enforcement to conduct a welfare check on her and tagged along. The officers pulled up to a neat yellow house surrounded by brightly colored butterfly-attracting bushes.

Cobb, a small elderly woman with short brown hair, answered the door. She stood there, confused by the presence of sheriff's deputies and Adair and struggling to understand them because of severe hearing loss. Once she realized what they were asking, she told them she was fine and simply wished to be left alone.

"She was a fabulous pilot, but that was never enough," Adair says. "I think she just said screw it, and I can't say I blame her."

New Times attempted to contact Cobb through Lummis for weeks. Lummis politely maintained that Cobb was in the Amazon jungle, out of reach of even the most basic forms of communication and unlikely to return anytime soon. But others who know the 87-year-old questioned that story, so a reporter visited Sun City Center, where almost every resident is at least 54 years old. Nobody answered the door, and the blinds were tightly shut.

Neighbors confirmed Cobb lived there, but declined to say much more. One woman said, "You get out of here. None of us are going to tell you anything." Another added, "She's not in the jungle and she's getting older, as we all are, but Jerrie is of sound mind. Jerrie is just a private person. I can't tell you anything else. I will not violate her privacy." Mary Strehar, a longtime friend and neighbor, said, "I think 90 percent of the people on this block have no idea who she really is... It's not her nature to be open. She's proud of her accomplishments, but there are the books where you can read about that. She does not wish to talk about it. That's all I can tell you."

The others are less mysterious. Jessen has continued to fly, still runs a flight school with her husband in Ohio, and has written a number of books about her experiences and about female pilots. But she's never written about being one of the Mercury 13. "It was never going to happen and I knew that. And when it didn't happen, that was hard, but I got over it. I moved on."

Ratley says she hasn't let it define her either. "I always had my hopes that NASA would change its mind and I would get to go, but I also went on with my life," Ratley says. "There was more to my life than something that didn't happen. There had to be."

Funk lives in a house in Grapevine, Texas, so close to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that huge passenger airliners always buzz overhead. She has turned her home into an ad hoc museum. Memorabilia from her childhood, her career in aviation, and her quest to get into space occupies every available surface. A TV tuned to the NASA station plays 24 hours a day.

After NASA rejected Funk's final astronaut application, she went to Star City, Russia, where the cosmonauts train, in the early 2000s. (In a video filmed by the Travel Channel, Funk is seen in a zero-gravity plane, pushing off from the floor and thrusting herself so high she touches the ceiling as a burly Russian scrambles to guide her so she won't fall or hit anyone else on her way down.)

When Richard Branson announced Virgin Galactic would offer private flights to space, Funk paid $200,000 to secure her spot. She already knows which seat she prefers (the one closest to the pilot's), but it's still unclear when or if she will get to go. Branson recently announced the company plans to start flights next year, but he's made similar claims in the past. Asked what she will do if she never goes to space, Funk, her eyes widening and beginning to fill, replies, "I don't know. I don't think about it. I'm going, end of story."

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >