I first met Jerrie Cobb two decades ago at a space shuttle launch. Tall, lanky, unassuming, a person of few words — Jerrie was all but invisible to people intent on watching the countdown clock.
Cobb was used to being overlooked. In 1962, NASA and Congress told her it didn’t have the time or money to waste on women like her.
In the early days of the space program, NASA’s medical director wanted to determine how women might score on the same rigorous exams he had administered to the Mercury 7 astronauts.
He tapped Cobb for secret testing. She held three world records and was the 1959 Woman of the Year in Aviation.
Cobb did well, surpassing some of the men’s results. But just as she was set to advance to final testing, NASA pulled the plug.
Some said her extraordinary scores threatened powerful men.
Cobb refused to be denied, and brought her case to Congress. She petitioned lawmakers to give women a chance — even a chance to fail. But Washington would have nothing of it, and said no. Space was for men only, they decided, and told Cobb to go home.
In 1983 Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. But it was too late for Cobb. She spent the rest of her life flying solo missionary runs in the Amazon rainforest.
I don’t think Cobb ever got over being denied a shot at her dream. She wasn’t angry, but she did seem lost to me. Or — more precisely — she seemed like something in her had been lost. Something snatched away.
I remember the last time I saw her. It was in Wisconsin a dozen years ago — a windy spring day when we were outside talking. Cobb’s attention had drifted away from our conversation for a moment, as she caught sight of a leaf seized by the wind. She stared as if it were something important, and then watched until it spun out of sight and disappeared high into the sky.
Martha Ackmann lives in Leverett, Massachusetts, and is author of"The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight."