Cobb was part of ‘Mercury 13’ and an inspiration to women pilots and astronauts everywhere.
Cape Canaveral: America's first female astronaut candidate, pilot Jerrie Cobb, who pushed for equality in space but never reached its heights, passed away recently. Cobb died in Florida at age 88 on March 18 following a brief illness. News of her death came Thursday from journalist Miles O'Brien, serving as a family spokesman.
In 1961, Cobb became the first woman to pass astronaut testing. Altogether, 13 women passed the arduous physical testing and became known as the Mercury 13. But NASA already had its Mercury 7 astronauts, all jet test pilots and all military men.
None of the Mercury 13 ever reached space, despite Cobb's testimony in 1962 before a Congressional panel. "We seek, only, a place in our nation's space future without discrimination," she told a special House subcommittee on the selection of astronauts.
Instead of making her an astronaut, NASA tapped her as a consultant to talk up the space programme. She was dismissed one week after commenting: "I'm the most unconsulted consultant in any government agency." In her 1997 autobiography ‘Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot,’ she wrote, ''My country, my culture, was not ready to allow a woman to fly in space."
Cobb served for decades as a humanitarian aid pilot in the Amazon jungle. "She should have gone to space but turned her life into one of service with grace," tweeted Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and a former NASA scientist.
The Soviet Union ended up putting the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space in 1963. NASA didn't fly a woman into space, Sally Ride, until 1983. Cobb and other surviving members of the Mercury 13 attended the 1995 shuttle launch of Eileen Collins, NASA's first female space pilot and later its first female space commander.
"Jerrie Cobb served as an inspiration to many of our members in her record breaking, her desire to go into space and just to prove that women could do what men could do," said Laura Ohrenberg, headquarters manager in Oklahoma City for the Ninety-Nines Inc, an international organisation of licensed women pilots.
Still hopeful, Cobb emerged in 1998 to make another pitch for space as NASA prepared to launch Mercury astronaut John Glenn — the first American to orbit the world — on shuttle Discovery at age 77. Cobb maintained that the geriatric space study should also include an older woman.
"I would give my life to fly in space, I really would," Cobb told The Associated Press at age 67 in 1998. "It's hard for me to talk about it, but I would. I would then and I will now. It just didn't work out then, and I just hope and pray it will now," she added. It didn't. NASA never flew another elderly person in space, male or female.