1961: A Woman in Space?

12 More Women Pilots Pass Dr. Lovelace’s Tests

Continued from last week — June 5 post

Dr. Randolph Lovelace now had 12 more women pilots who qualified for the testing the first seven male astronauts had undergone. The 12 joined with Jerrie Cobb in the program that came to be known as the Mercury 13.

Lovelace scheduled an advanced round of testing for the 13 women. Cobb aced her testing, but before the other women could follow her, politics and public opinion sidetracked any further discussion. September 1961, Lovelace was notified that any further testing was cancelled.

None of the Mercury 13 Flew in Space

But restrictions on women flying military aircraft began to change in the mid-1970s. Then in 1978, when NASA announced its new pool of astronaut candidates, six women were named. All were mission specialists, not pilots. One was a doctor, the others were scientists with different specialties. Sally Ride, who held a PhD. degree in physics — one of the six — was the first American woman to fly in space.

By then, American astronauts had walked on the Moon and space travel now meant Space Shuttle trips that orbited the earth. Two pilots carried several mission specialists aloft at a time. Women made these trips into space. But, as yet, no women Shuttle pilots had been selected from the growing pool of female military pilots.

Eileen Collins First Woman Shuttle Commander

In 1998, NASA selected Eileen Collins, an Air Force lieutenant colonel and a pilot, to be the first woman to command the space shuttle. Her flight launched July 23, 1999. It had been 40 years since Dr. Lovelace chose Jerrie Cobb as his first woman astronaut test candidate.

Eileen invited the living members of the Mercury 13 group to watch her launch into space. Seven of the Mercury 13 were there at Cape Kennedy to send Eileen off in style: Jerrie Cobb and Sarah Gorelick Ratley were joined by Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerri Sloan Truhill, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice “B” Steadman.

After Mercury 13 for Sarah Ratley

Summer 1961, when it appeared that the testing might continue, Sarah quit her job in order to fulfill her promise to Lovelace. Before the testing could begin in September, the program was cancelled. Politics and prejudice against women were the real reasons. To learn much more about this story, read The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann.

Already an accomplished pilot, Sarah said later of her Mercury 13 journey, “I was determined to pass and did not care how I did in relation to others. I reached for the stars.” Sarah thought she had a chance to explore new frontiers. As for the Mercury 13 she said, “someone must always lead the way so that others may follow their dreams. We went on with our lives.”

Sarah married and had a daughter, and she continued to fly. She flew in several more Powder Puff Derbies and in other women’s air races. She became an accountant and worked for the IRS. And with an eye to encouraging young women to consider careers in what we now call STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—Sarah began to give talks about the thwarted Mercury 13 program and how to overcome disappointment and move on. The scientist became a communicator, and a good one at that.

Jerrie Cobb Never Stopped Flying.

Her professional flying career began early. She wasn’t even 20. On that 1952 ferrying flight to South America, Jerrie, then 21, and the man who hired her, Jack Ford, left Miami to deliver two AT-6 aircraft to Peru. They flew in formation. Jack tucked his plane up behind and just below Jerrie’s wing.

This was Jerrie’s first flight over a long, seemingly unending expanse of water. Barring unforeseen trouble, they had enough fuel on board to make the flight safely. But Jerrie would be making more AT-6 deliveries to Peru, solo. Jack wanted her to get the feel of making the long flight for herself, so he gave her no further instructions.

The longest leg was from Kingston, Jamaica, to Barranquilla, Colombia, on the coast of South America. The range of their AT-6s was four hours to dry tanks. Their flight plan called for three hours and forty minutes. They had been flying more than three hours without a single check point to verify their position, winds or speed.

Jerrie Strained to See Signs of the Coastline

Well past their “point of no return” and committed to make Barranquilla or land in the ocean, Jerrie strained to see signs of the coast. Nothing.

Just as Jerrie’s fuel gauges neared zero, her low-frequency radio suddenly found a signal strong enough to home in on. The ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) needle swung up indicating the Barranquilla nondirectional radio beacon straight ahead.

Jerrie still saw nothing but ocean. Then she heard the button of Jack’s mike click on. He told her to look down. There she saw a line in the water separating muddy brown water from the blue-green Caribbean. The Magdalena River was flowing into the ocean draining the northern half of Colombia.

He told her to begin her gradual descent. The coastline would be visible within 15 minutes. They had made it!

And After Mercury 13?

After Mercury 13, the direction of Jerrie’s life totally changed. Earlier in her flying career, Jerrie had thought about becoming a missionary pilot. But, like the space program, the same lack of interest in women doing a job “meant for men” stymied her ambitions. After her brush with space, Jerrie once again became interested in the work of medical missionaries with the indigent people in the South American jungles. She returned to that dream. She would fly medicine, food and supplies to the these people. Flying was what mattered.

Information from Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot.

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