The Mercury 13: Meet the Woman Astronauts Grounded by NASA

The Mercury 13: Meet the Woman Astronauts Grounded by NASA

In the early 1960s, 13 trailblazing American women participated in a secret program to become America’s first female astronaut. Although the skilled pilots passed the same physiological screening tests given to the Mercury Seven astronauts, NASA abruptly shuttered the little-known Woman in Space Program before its participants could ever leave the ground. The “Mercury 13” may have had the right stuff, but for NASA they were the wrong gender.

When NASA introduced its first astronaut corps in 1959, it was strictly a men’s-only club. Although women weren’t explicitly barred from the “Mercury Seven,” NASA’s requirement that astronauts be experienced military jet test pilots—a job open only to men—effectively prevented their selection.

However, space medicine experts such as Air Force Brigadier General Donald Flickinger and Dr. Randy Lovelace, a NASA contractor who conducted the official physical examinations of the Project Mercury candidates, believed that women could be preferable to men as astronauts because on average they are lighter, shorter and consume less food and oxygen—an advantage when every pound is critical to the cost and feasibility of space flight. In addition, tests have found women more resistant to radiation and less prone to cardiovascular issues.

After a chance encounter, Flickinger and Lovelace found their perfect candidate for testing an aspiring female astronaut. Like many young pilots at the dawn of the Space Age, Jerrie Cobb had stars in her eyes. A licensed commercial pilot at the age of 18, Cobb was flying routes from California to Paraguay by the time the Associated Press profiled the 24-year-old “girl pilot” in 1955. Five years later, Cobb had logged a total of 10,000 hours in the cockpit, twice that of Mercury astronaut John Glenn.

In February 1960, the 29-year-old Cobb traveled to Lovelace’s private clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as the first participant in his secret Woman in Space Program, which was not sanctioned by NASA. She underwent the same grueling tests given to the Mercury Seven. Researchers poured ice water into her ears to simulate vertigo and jammed a 3-foot rubber hose down her throat to test stomach acid. She was poked and prodded with needles and submerged in water and darkness to simulate sensory isolation.

Cobb not only passed all three phases of the screening program, she even surpassed the male astronauts on some tests. When Lovelace announced the test results in August 1960, Cobb became a media sensation. She appeared in Life magazine, and newspapers debated whether to call the would-be space traveler an “astronautrix,” “astronette” or “lady astronaut.”

To see if Cobb’s results could be replicated, Lovelace recruited another two-dozen skilled female pilots—ranging from 21-year-old flight instructor Wally Funk to 39-year-old Janey Hart, a mother of eight and wife of Senator Philip Hart—to come to New Mexico. Famed aviatrix Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier, used some of the money from her successful cosmetics business to bankroll the privately run program. As with Cobb, the women outperformed the men on numerous medical and screening tests. Funk, who grew up playing with planes instead of dolls, spent more than 10 hours in the isolation tank—better than any other astronaut trainee, male or female.

A dozen women, whom Cobb called Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs), passed the screening. Later dubbed the “Mercury 13,” the aspiring astronauts prepared to undergo space flight simulation at a Navy facility in Pensacola, Florida. Just days before leaving, however, Lovelace sent word that the testing had been abruptly cancelled once the Navy learned that his program was not sponsored by NASA.

After NASA shuttered the Woman in Space Program, Cobb and Hart met in person with Vice President Lyndon Johnson in March 1962 to lobby for its resumption. According to Stephanie Nolen’s book “Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race,” Johnson aide Liz Carpenter drafted a letter to NASA asking why women couldn’t be astronauts. After meeting with Cobb and Hart, Johnson picked up his pen, but instead of signing the letter, he scrawled, “Let’s stop this now!”

Cobb and Hart fared no better on Capitol Hill when they testified before a congressional subcommittee in July 1962. “We seek, only, a place in our nation’s space future without discrimination,” said Cobb, who was referred to in United Press International reports as “an attractive 31-year-old astronaut aspirant.” “There were women on the Mayflower and on the first wagon trains west, working alongside the men to forge new trails to new vistas. We ask that opportunity in the pioneering of space.”

“I think that our society should cease to frown on the woman who seeks to combine family life with a career,” Hart told lawmakers. “Let’s face it: For many women the PTA just is not enough.”

Still being showered with adulation five months after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, Glenn backed NASA’s position that a new training program for women would jeopardize the goal of landing an American on the moon before the end of the decade. Glenn told lawmakers that although he believed women had the capabilities to become astronauts, “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. 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 Mercury 13 found no more support in Congress than they had in the White House for women becoming astronauts or military test pilots. NASA hired Cobb as a consultant on women’s issues, but then gave her little to do. “I’m the most unconsulted consultant in any government agency,” she groused after a year on the job. Her frustration only grew when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. By the time Cobb resigned her position with NASA, the closest she had ever come to outer space was posing with a Mercury spaceship capsule for newspaper photographers.

When Neil Armstrong took one small step for a man—not a woman—after landing on the moon in July 1969, Cobb was deep in the jungles of the Amazon using her piloting skills to deliver food, medicine and humanitarian aid packages to villages, work for which she would later be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Not until 1983 did an American woman, Sally Ride, blast off into space. In 1995, eight of the 11 surviving FLATs, including Cobb, gathered together to watch as Eileen Collins roared into space as the first female space shuttle commander, a dream denied to the trailblazers but made possible for Collins by their efforts.


Meet the Rogue Women Astronauts of the 1960s Who Never Flew

Valentina Tereshkova was the first-ever woman to fly a spacecraft, on June 16, 1963. But even before Tereshkova took off, the United States was researching–and discarding–the idea of sending women into space, for reasons that had nothing to do with their abilities. It would take another twenty years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

Related Content

This is the story of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, an elite group of women pilots who underwent astronaut testing and seemed like they might be on track to become astronauts in the early 1960s.  The best remembered of these women is probably Jerrie Cobb, a record-setting aviator. Even though Cobb and twelve others did extremely well in the astronaut tests, none of them went to space and the program they were part of was killed, speaking to the unwarranted sexism of the early American space program.

The FLATs weren’t technically part of the NASA program. Their testing was overseen by Dr. Randy Lovelace, the doctor who created the Mercury mission’s astronaut testing standards, at his private clinic. Cobb was recruited first, in 1960, and on the basis of her results, twenty-five other women were tested, with twelve qualifying. At moments in 1961, writes Amy Shira Teitel for Popular Science, it certainly appeared that the FLATs were being seriously considered for entry into the space program.

There were strong arguments for looking at women astronauts, writes historian Margaret Weitekamp for the National Air and Space Museum. “Scientists knew that women, as smaller beings on average, require less food, water and oxygen, which was an advantage when packing a traveler and supplies into a small spacecraft,” she writes. “Women outperformed men on isolation tests and, on average, had better cardiovascular health.”  

But by 1962, the idea had been scrapped. In the wake of this, Cobb and Jane Hart, another FLAT, argued for their program before a July 17-18, 1962 Congressional hearing. In the hearing transcript, Cobb–who was unmarried–got a first name. But Jane Hart was billed as “Mrs. Philip Hart, wife of Senator Philip A. Hart, of Michigan, and also a famed pilot, as well as an outstanding wife and mother.”

“We seek, only, a place in our Nation’s space future without discrimination,” Cobb said in her statement. “We ask as citizens of this Nation to be allowed to participate with seriousness and sincerity in the making of history now, as women have in the past.”

John Glenn, who became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962, also testified before Congress at the same hearing.  As Roshanna Sylvester writes for The Conversation, adolescent girls frequently wrote to Glenn expressing their aspirations to be like him, and their doubts that it would be possible for them to reach the stars. According to Sylvester, one teen named Diana A. wrote to Glenn, saying, “I would very much like to become an astronaut, but since I am a 15-year-old girl I guess that would be impossible.”

Glenn didn’t do much to encourage young women who wrote to him. As his statements before Congress revealed, he didn’t think women belonged in space at all–even though the Soviet Union sent a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space in 1963.

Before Congress, Glenn said he thought that former military pilots made the best astronauts, Sylvester writes, stating that “the men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them.” Among the many people this statement ignored were the Women Airforce Service Pilots (commonly known as the WASPs), among them Jacqueline Cochran, who helped to fund the FLATs and had hopes of a longer-term women in space program.

Up to that point, the U.S. had rushed to meet Soviet space achievements mark for mark. But they didn’t rush to put a woman in space, even though they had women who would have been ideal candidates.

“Perhaps launching an American women would signal that a direct competition for space supremacy existed,” writes Weitekamp in her book on the FLATs.  At the same time, the way gender was framed in postwar America meant that a woman injured in space would impact how NASA looked domestically.

But that wasn’t the big reason, writes Weitekamp. “On a very basic level,” she writes, “it never occurred to American decision makers to seriously consider a woman astronaut.”

Perhaps that’s most galling of all. With all that talent in front of them, they just… didn’t care.

Jane Hart went on to become active in the antiwar movement. She died in 2015. Jerri Cobb is 86. She spent her career flying the Amazon jungle as a missionary pilot, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.


Paving the launch pad for female astronauts: KC woman shares her experience in the Mercury 13

Sarah Ratley has been flying since she was 14. Last year, she took this photo when she became a U.F.O (United Flying Octogenarians). Photos courtesy of Sarah Ratley

Published October 9th, 2014 at 4:38 PM

When Sarah Ratley received the invitation to be part of a secret project testing women as potential astronauts in 1961, she was at the beauty parlor.

While working as an engineer for AT&T, Ratley had gone to get her hair done over the lunch hour.

“They traced me down to the beauty salon,” said Ratley, who is now 81 and has lived in the Kansas City area for most of her life. “They wanted me to take a flight the next day to Albuquerque to take the tests …. I went on just a phone call.”

These “tests” were a series of physical and psychological exams to determine who would be most fit to send on the U.S.’s first “manned” space flights.

In the early days of the space program, scientists explored sending women into space for a number of physiological reasons, including that women, on average weigh less, which reduces the amount of fuel needed to put the spacecraft into orbit.

Dr. Randy Lovelace II and the staff at his clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, scored prospective astronauts on a full gamut of tests, including 75 rounds of X-rays and hours spent floating in dark isolation tanks.

“The people there were very supportive, and I think they wanted the program to succeed,” Ratley said. “It was just an extremely thorough physical … and the psychological testing, like putting us in a tank and in the dark to see if we would get claustrophobia …. Well, I just considered them pretty normal tests. I remember on that bicycle I just kept going and going and said (to myself), ‘I will make it. I will make it. Keep going. Keep going.’”

And Ratley did keep going.

Of the 25 women that were invited to Lovelace’s clinic, 13 ladies, including Ratley, were selected to undergo further testing at the Naval School of Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. In fact, many of these women, who came to be known as the Mercury 13, scored higher on Lovelace’s evaluations than their male counterparts.

All of the Mercury 13 were experienced pilots, several having logged thousands more flight hours than any of the male astronauts in the Mercury 7.

Ratley started flying when she was just 14, borrowing her older sister’s I.D. so that she met the age requirement for solo flying: 16.

Shortly thereafter, Ratley said that she used an inheritance to buy her first plane, a Cessna 120, which she flew all over the U.S. and in transcontinental air races for women.

“Most of the time, it was mandatory at the air races in the early ‘50s and mid-’50s that we fly in dresses to show that we were still very feminine and all that good stuff,” Ratley said. “We wore pearls when we flew too.”

“Most of the time, it was mandatory at the air races in the early ‘50s and mid-’50s that we fly in dresses to show that we were still very feminine and all that good stuff. We wore pearls when we flew too.” – Sarah Ratley, one of 13 women pilots selected to undergo astronaut testing in 1961.

Ratley and her fellow women pilots also wore high heels when in flight. This was impractical and maybe even dangerous — planes are steered by the pilot’s feet, and Ratley remembers breaking many pairs of heels while maneuvering.

Despite the impracticalities of flying in dresses and heels, Ratley and other lady pilots learned to keep a pair of flat shoes and an extra pair of hose in their planes.

“We wore hose, and it was kind of rough climbing up on the wings, so you’d usually carry your hose if you took your shoes off to get in the airplane,” Ratley said. “Otherwise with the black sandpaper finish on the wings, you’d tear your hose.”

Though women were allowed to fly, they were not permitted to be commercial pilots or part of the military. The latter was the justification NASA and the U.S. government used to halt any further testing just days before the Mercury 13 were to head for Pensacola.

“I had quit my job in engineering and everything else, and I was just extremely disappointed,” Ratley said. “But I have found out through life for every door that closes, two more will open. I just went on with my life and continued to have fun, find new adventures and everything else.”

Although Ratley had been working as an engineer for AT&T and held degrees in mathematics, physics and chemistry, another reason the government used to cancel Lovelace’s project was the attitude that female astronauts would lack the scientific and engineering backgrounds necessary for space travel.

Ultimately, the gender issues and prejudices of the era won out, despite qualifications and physiological advantages women possessed.

In 1963, just two years after the Lovelace project was cancelled, Soviet Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. It wasn’t until 1982 that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

Ratley said that while Ride’s historic flight meant a lot to her, it was Eileen Collins’ breakthroughs as the first female shuttle pilot in 1995 and the first female shuttle commander in 1999 that made her feel as if her participation in the Lovelace project had been worth it.

“That was what we really waited for, was for a woman pilot to be in command,” Ratley said. “Eileen was excellent. She invited us to her launches and to her parties ….You could not ask for a nicer individual, a more outgoing person and she recognized us. She said that she stood on our shoulders and that she appreciated those that had gone before her, and the pathway that they created.”

Although Ratley said that she was the only woman in many of her STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes in college, she is excited that today’s girls have more options.

“Girls can be very scientifically and mathematically inclined, and can go to the very top too,” Ratley said.

This Saturday, KCPT’s Community Cinema screening of “MAKERS: Women in Space” will explore the history of women in the final frontier, and Ratley will share some of her experiences.

Major Funding for Education coverage on KCPT provided by Jo Anna Dale and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation


The First Group of Female Cosmonauts Were Trained to Conquer the Final Frontier

They entered a heavily male-dominated industry in the early days of space exploration, still terra incognita for humankind. When one of these pioneers, Valentina Tereshkova, returned to Earth as the first woman in space, the whole world celebrated a milestone for both cosmonautics and feminism. But instead of taking the next step, Moscow shelved their female cosmonaut program for two decades.

This is the story of the first all-female Soviet space squad.

(Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

Nikolai Kamanin, a prominent aviator and big wig in the Soviet space industry, celebrated New Year’s Eve in 1963 surrounded by family at his home just outside Moscow. He was enjoying an evening with his wife, son and granddaughter. Kamanin missed them tremendously over the past two busy years.

Kamanin recruited the first two cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, and Gagarin took the mantle of first human in space on April 12, 1961. After that historic flight, Kamanin was still managing the space squad based in Star City, near Moscow. But now he was lobbying for the first female flight, and his dream was about to come true.

“When the first cosmonauts travelled the world to give speeches after their flights, Kamanin was along for the ride. During these trips, he realized that one of the most frequently asked questions by foreign journalists was about sending a woman to space. This inspired Kamanin to proceed with the idea,” says Anton Pervushin, the author of Yuri Gagarin: One Flight and the Whole Life and 108 Minutes that Changed the World.

In 1961, months after Gagarin’s launch, Kamanin began to pitch the idea of a first female flight. He was able to make powerful allies including top-ranking party officials and Mstislav Keldysh, a member of the USSR Academy of Science, considered a top scientist in the field of mathematics and mechanics. Kamanin also sought out support from Sergey Korolev, a leading Soviet rocket engineer regarded as the founding father of practical cosmonautics. Korolev would prove to be a critical voice in realizing Kamanin’s dream.

President John F. Kennedy with second Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov (right) and the first American astronaut to orbit Earth, John Glenn (left), May 1962. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

After some effort, Kamanin managed to convince Korolev to support the idea of a first female flight. And six months later, the Central Committee of the Communist Party agreed to recruit 60 more cosmonauts, including five women.

Throughout this process, Nikolai Kamanin continued to travel and promote the nation’s space efforts overseas. From April 1961 to January 1963, he visited more than 30 countries with Gagarin and Titov, including a trip to the United States. There they met with President John F. Kennedy and had dinner with the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, and his wife at their home.

According to memoirs written by a member of the Soviet female squad years later, over the course of that trip, Kamanin got to know legendary female aviator Geraldyne Cobb. In 1960, she and 12 other women passed the same health screening tests given to male astronauts for Project Mercury. This attempt by the Americans to prove women were capable of flying to space was dubbed ‘Mercury 13’ for the number of female finalists in the experiment. None of them would ever make it to space.

Jerrie Cobb, a member of NASA's Mercury 13, poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule that she never got to fly, 1960s. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

"In fact, before any person had flown in space, some researchers had been exploring whether women might actually be better suited for spaceflight than men. Scientists knew that women, smaller beings on average, require less food, water and oxygen, which was an advantage when packing a traveler and supplies into a small spacecraft,” writes Margaret Weitekamp, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, in Right Stuff, Wrong Sex.

The Mercury 13 scientists found that women did better than men in isolation tests and often had stronger cardiovascular health. This project was led by NASA specialists, but it was never part of the agency’s official agenda. It was a privately funded initiative, and it did not change the industry’s gender policies at the time.

By May 1962, when the Russian delegation visited the United States, the first Soviet female trainees had already been accepted to the space squad in Star City. NASA, however, was still not planning to launch a woman to space. The agency made this position clear in response to a letter sent by grade school student Linda Halpern, in which she asked President Kennedy how she could become an astronaut. “We have no present plans to employ women on space flights," NASA responded.

Letter from NASA to Linda Halpern, informing the young student that the space agency did not have plans to launch women on space flights. (NASA)

Regardless of NASA’s position on female space flight at the time, the Kremlin understood the critical role public relations would play in the space race and sought to bolster its propaganda effort. Under the circumstances, any new achievement or milestone would prove Soviet dominance in the emerging space industry. Moscow decided to strike first.

When the idea of sending a female cosmonaut to space was officially approved by Soviet leadership, more than 800 women applied for the job. Fifty-eight were formally considered but only 23 candidates were selected for advanced medical screening in Moscow.

The ideal female cosmonaut candidate was younger than 30, shorter than 5.5 feet, and no heavier than 154 pounds. A degree was a plus, but still optional. Much more attention was paid to the specific skills needed to perform her duties—but finding ideal candidates was tricky.

(Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

Male candidates were selected from a pool of test pilots, but this career path was unavailable for Soviet women. Some, however, did have related qualifications. In the post-war years, it was not too difficult to find female aviators who had not only served during World War II but also participated in air battles. However, all these veterans were older than the desired age.

Because of the small pool of qualified candidates, Soviet leadership decided to look for female cosmonauts at local skydiving clubs which had proliferated across the nation since the 1930s. During the Cold War, the government decided to promote this sport to all young people to prepare them for the next big war.

Skydiving was seen as a relevant qualification for reasons that were classified at the time. Early models of soviet spacecraft required cosmonauts to eject from their capsules and deploy a parachute, landing separately from the spacecraft. By the time a female unit was being put together in Star City, Soviet engineers had yet to come up with a safer landing strategy.

Finalists for the all-female space squad were divided into two groups for health screening tests that began in January 1962. They underwent medical examination at the same hospital where the Soviet Union's WWII ace pilot Alexey Maresyev, who lost both legs in combat, had tried to prove to a group of amused doctors that he was still capable of flying. According to the legend, he did so by performing Gopak, a Ukrainian Cossack dance.

Following the same protocol used for male candidates, women went through multiple medical and psychological tests. Doctors X-rayed their bodies, studied their brain functions, and ran advanced cardiovascular and blood screenings. The women were also subjected to centrifuge training, in which a machine rotates rapidly to apply powerful centrifugal forces on its inhabitant. Scientists used this test to determine how subjects would handle acceleration in zero gravity.

Skydiver Zhanna Yorkina worked as a school teacher before she was accepted to the female space unit. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

Zhanna Yorkina, a 25-year-old rural school teacher, was a uniquely qualified candidate. On top of being a skydiver, she spoke two foreign languages, German and French. But these skills didn't help when it came to the centrifuge tests. “My weight was 60 kilograms [132 pounds] but due to the g-force acceleration I felt an extra pressure of 600 kilograms [1320 pounds] while being inside of it,” Yorkina recalled. “This does not feel nice. If you relax your abdomen, you will get unconscious, which often happened with the men as well. We had a remote control in our hands while testing. If you hold it, it means you are conscious. If not, you have passed out, and they take you out.”

Marina Popovich submitted her application to the space squad along with her husband, Pavel Popovich, who had just survived all the brutal tests required for the job. In August 1962, he and Andryan Nikolaev would perform the first group space flight. Popovich, a highly experienced female aviator, was told she did not pass her health tests. Later, her husband would ask Kamanin to help his wife join the Soviet Air Force, and in 1964 Popovich would become the Soviet Union’s first female military test pilot.

Whether or not Marina Popovich actually failed the health tests is still unclear. Some documents relating to the selection process are still classified, and external factors could have been considered, including loyalty to the regime and discriminatory assumptions about women. Later, all finalists would admit they felt sick after each round of simulator training, but some were better at covering it up.

Valentina Ponomareva. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

When selection began, Muscovite Valentina Ponomareva was 28. She was a staff member for the Department of Applied Mathematics at Steklov Mathematical Institute, which was part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Institute was closely connected with the design bureau, led by Sergey Korolev.

Intelligent and well-educated, with a degree from the Moscow Aviation Institute, Ponomareva had chosen a career in math over her high school passion, literature. But deep inside, she yearned for a life in the skies. As a university student, Ponomareva was skipping classes to work and fly with a local aviation club. There, she met another amateur pilot who later became her husband and the father of her son.

She received an unexpected offer to try “flying higher than any pilot” while dancing with a male colleague at a New Year’s work party. Ponomareva said yes without hesitation, but deep inside she thought it was a joke. Her colleague was persistent, and Ponomareva eventually sent an official application to her new boss, Mstislav Keldysh, who was recently promoted to President of the USSR Academy of Science.

When they met, Ponomareva was nervous. In her eyes, Keldysh was a monumental figure, considering his outstanding contributions to the Soviet space industry. “Why do you like flying?” Keldysh asked her. “I don’t know,” Ponomareva replied. “That’s right, we can never know why we like flying,” said Keldysh. He accepted her application.

Irina Solovyova. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

Ponomareva would go on to pass her health tests, and she recovered well after simulator training. But Yuri Gagarin opposed her candidacy. “We cannot put the life of a mother at risk by sending her to space,” said the very first man to fly beyond the atmosphere. Nevertheless, Ponomareva, the only woman without significant skydiving experience among the five, was accepted to the female unit.

Ponomareva wasn’t the only woman brought to the pool of candidates by an outside party. At least two other finalists received offers to enlist from the Soviet Union’s secret police.

When Irina Solovyova was contacted by these shadowy figures, she was a 24-year-old engineer from Ural with a science degree and was a member of the national skydiving team. “Me and my skydiving instructor and future husband, Sergey Kiselev, went to our favorite cafe to discuss the offer and stayed there until it closed,” Solovyova recalled. “We decided it was worth trying.”

Tatyana Kuznetsova. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

Tatyana Kuznetsova, a 20-year-old staff member of the Moscow Institute of Radio Technics and an avid skydiver, was recruited in the same way. From the position of stenographer, Kuznetsova quickly climbed to the role of party secretary at the Institute. One year later, she was promoted to a senior laboratory assistant without obtaining a degree, and by her 20th birthday, she had become a national champion in skydiving. Shortly after winning that title, Kuznetsova received an offer to join the space squad.

Tatyana Morozycheva was a striking and fashionable woman. She worked as an art teacher in Yaroslavl while pursuing her interest in parachuting. Morozycheva began to represent her region in national contests and helped Valentina Tereshkova at the local parachuting club they both belonged to.

Both Morozycheva and Tereshkova were selected for the medical examination in Moscow, and their candidacies were pre-approved by the local branch of the Communist Party.

Professional skydiver Tatyana Morozycheva competed with Valentina Tereshkova for a spot on the female space unit and lost. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

What happened next is still unclear. One version of events says Morozycheva got married and pregnant before she was informed of her selection for screening, and therefore skipped the trip. Another says she was rejected, and only told why later: because she was expecting a child.

According to her close friend Natalia Ledneva, who spoke to a local Yaroslavl newspaper, Morozycheva was not an easy-going person. She was a very candid speaker and strived to be number one. Ledneva recalled that Morozycheva did more pull-ups and ran faster than her male counterparts to prove she was the better candidate.

But the newspaper Kommersant suggested that Tereshkova outperformed Morozycheva in something just as important to the Soviets as the health tests: promoting communist values.

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly to space. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

Valentina Tereshkova came from a working-class family. Her father was a tractor driver who died in the Soviet-Finnish war, leaving her to be raised by a single mother, a textile worker. Valentina followed her mother’s footsteps, landing a job at a local textile factory. But Tereshkova was found to be more than an average worker in the Soviet labor force. She was elected Secretary of the Komsomol Committee of her factory, an organization sometimes seen as the youth division of the Communist Party. This opportunity opened many doors.

In a Soviet documentary, Kamanin admitted that he was told about Valentina Tereshkova a few weeks before their official meeting by his deputy, General Goreglyad. “We have a new candidate, and she is a very good one. She is a great worker and a Komsomol leader,” said Goreglyad. “Please do not rush, we are still far from making the final decision on the flight,” he told Kamanin. According to Goreglyad, Tereshkova was the best fit for the mission.

Eventually, five women were accepted to the first all-female space unit in Star City near Moscow: Zhanna Yorkina, Irina Solovyova, Tatyana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomareva and course Valentina Tereshkova. They were all told they would fly one day.

A modern patch commemorating the first group of women trained to fly in space. (Patch design by Supercluster)

In early 1962, members of the male space squad gathered at a dining room in Star City and were joined by Yuri Gagarin. “Congratulations! Get ready to welcome the girls in a few days,” announced Gagarin.

“We, a tiny group of military test pilots selected for the space program, had been living together as one big family in Star City for two years. We shared struggles and knew everything about each other, and now we had to accept new members to our family,” recalled cosmonaut Georgi Shonin.

“When we started training together, it was very unusual to hear soft and feminine call signs Chaika (seagull) or Bereza (birch) instead of solid and firm Sokol (falcon) or Rubin (ruby),” Shonin continues. “Their intonations alone were telling. If a voice was sonorous, everything went as planned. But sometimes their voices sounded pitiful. That meant the instructor was practicing certain failures of the system with them, and Bereza or Chaika was trying to fix the problem.”

“The guys treated us well, they helped us a lot and taught us how to pull it all off, how to solve theoretical and practical problems, and how to hide any health issues,” said Ponomareva decades later. “But they were not very happy when we, five girls, first showed up in Star City.”

(Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

The first female space flight was originally planned as a group mission. Two women would simultaneously pilot twin spacecraft in orbit. Nikolai Kamanin, the driving force behind this mission, believed female cosmonauts should not lag behind their male counterparts. After cosmonauts Nikolai Andrianov and Pavel Popovich simultaneously piloted two Vostoks in August 1962, a female group flight seemed like the logical next step.

Nevertheless, the mission plan and launch date changed multiple times. At one point, Kamanin was not even sure there would be enough spacecraft manufactured in time for the flight. But by April 1963, the plan was gaining support. Finally, a decision was made to fly a man, Valery Bykovsky, on one of the two Vostok spacecraft.

The question of which female cosmonaut would fly the mission remained undecided.

Early on, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Tereshkova and Tatyana Kuznetsova formed the leading trio. But as time passed, Kuznetsova was replaced by Valentina Ponomareva on the shortlist. Kamanin described Kuznetsova as the most sensitive and easily influenced candidate, traits he did not see as ideal for a future national hero. But his main concern was Tatyana Kuznetsova’s health.

Repeated sessions on simulators that heat the human body to extreme temperatures and mimic the significant gravitational forces of flight were part of the training program, and Kuznetsova did not respond well to these tests. Due to growing health concerns, Kuznetsova did not take the final exams in the fall of 1962. The remaining four women received excellent grades and graduated from the program as licensed cosmonauts.

But Tatyana Kuznetsova was not the only person whose health was impacted by the program. Zhanna Yorkina hurt her leg during a skydiving session, and as a result, was forced to take a three-month leave of absence to heal. She was able to catch up with the others and graduate from the program, but it wasn’t enough for a shot at becoming the first woman in space.

At the time, Soviet cosmonauts were treated as national icons, and trainees in the space program were the next generation. Members of the space squad were young, attractive, smart and well paid. The monthly salary of a licensed cosmonaut before a flight was 350 rubles, almost three times more than an engineer with a degree.

In this light, Kamanin started worrying about his “girls,” as he called them. He knew how the spotlight affected previous cosmonauts and remembered all too well the reprimands Gagarin and Titov received for excessive drinking and reckless driving. As far as we know, members of the female space unit never engaged in such ill-advised behavior, but some had their vices. Valentina Ponomareva occasionally smoked cigarettes, which was strictly prohibited, and was known for consuming alcohol on occasion. Kamanin saw even this minor transgression as a red flag.

“According to her health tests and preparedness, Ponomareva could have been the first choice for the female flight, but her behavior and conversations give reason to conclude that her moral values are not stable enough,” Kamanin wrote in his diaries.

Ponomareva’s memoirs paint a different picture. She recalls being enthusiastic about her role on the space squad and working hard to succeed. She was the only woman without much skydiving experience, and she was the oldest in the group, earning her the nickname Baby Valya from her instructor.

(Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

On one jump, Ponomareva landed incorrectly, injuring her tailbone. She could barely walk, but chose to jump again to overcome her fear. This second attempt was not any better, and her instructor was forced to call a doctor.

All X-rays performed on cosmonauts had to be reported to the Kremlin, meaning she would be at risk for dismissal. Her doctor ultimately decided not to perform the X-rays, hoping nothing serious had happened, and Ponomareva was thankful for his discretion.

Afraid to lose their prestigious positions, both female and male members of the space squad tended to hide medical issues, including minor sickness. Decades after Ponomareva struggled with these skydiving tests, she discovered three cracks in her spine and one in her chest, resulting from unsuccessful parachute jumps.

Ponomareva recalled there being no envy between the women in the squad. According to her, it was a healthy spirit of competition. Everyone did their best to be number one but also supported each other’s efforts.

Many of the women on the squad described Valentina Tereshkova as a good friend.

“She always advocated for our interests in front of the bosses. For example, in the beginning of the program we lived as if we were behind the barbed wire. We lived near Moscow but only Muscovites were allowed to leave the training camp to see their families,” Zhanna Yorkina recalled. “Me and Tereshkova got bored and asked for permission to go to Moscow. ‘What for? What do you want to buy?’ they said. Once, Valentina Tereshkova lost control and blurted out the following: ‘Knickers! That’s what we want to buy!’ This is how we got permission.”

As launch day drew closer, some of the women suspected they would not be chosen. Valentina Tereshkova was garnering a lot of attention, and it was soon officially confirmed that she would fly, with Ponomareva and Solovyova as alternates.

Korolev had two separate conversations with Tereshkova’s alternates after the decision was made. Solovyova was told that someone more extroverted was needed, since they would be dealing with worldwide publicity following the flight. Valentina Ponomareva received a different explanation for the final choice. Korolev told her that a working-class woman would be a better representation of Soviet ideals than one from a white-collar family.

“I have no doubt that Ponomareva was the best fit for the first female flight,” says space historian and author Anton Pervushin. “But unlike the case of Gagarin, the final decision was made not by specialists but by top-ranking politicians, including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who was looking for a ‘Gagarin in a skirt.’ Khrushchev believed Tereshkova would be a better representation of the ideal Soviet Woman, and not only because she was a worker, but because the textile industry she represented played a key role in his domestic policies.”

All three women followed the same standard procedures before launch day. They filled out a captain’s logbook, checked their space suits and got used to the spacecraft cabin. But by this time, Ponomareva had lost all motivation, and there were moments when tears pricked the back of her eyes. Sergei Korolev, the lead Soviet rocket engineer, asked how she would feel if the first woman in space was someone else.

“Yes, I would feel hurt,” replied Ponomareva.

After a short pause, Korolev said he would feel the same.

On launch day, June 16, 1963, Tereshkova strode confidently to her Vostok 6 spacecraft. But as she reached the cabin, the historic importance of the moment sent adrenaline pumping through her veins. Her heart rate sped to 140 beats per minute.

“She is well prepared for the flight. She will not only be flying in space but piloting the spacecraft in the same fashion as men. When she lands, we will compare who is better at completing [their] tasks,” said Yuri Gagarin at Baikonur, a few hours before Tereshkova’s launch.

After three days and 48 orbits around our planet, the 26-year-old Tereshkova returned to Earth a global celebrity, receiving a bounty of state awards. The Soviet leadership had no doubt that this historic flight was a great political victory that would help promote communism worldwide.

Valentina Tereshkova arrived in Moscow with her group flight partner, Valery Bykovsky, who piloted another Vostok while they were in orbit together.

“Flying over all continents, me and my celestial brother Bykovsky did not feel lonely. The Communist Party, the Motherland, and great people of the Soviet Union gave us strength and wings to accomplish this flight,” said Tereshkova, standing in the Red Square between Khrushchev and Yuri Gagarin. “The Soulful and fatherly words of Nikita Sergeevich [Khrushchev] in a conversation we had on the first day in orbit inspired me to valiant service.”

Valentina Tereshkova and Valery Bykovsky meet Muscovites after the flight and give speeches at the Red Square with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

The celebration was carefully planned in advance, and not a single detail could be overlooked, including officially approved and printed portraits of Valentina Tereshkova. Employees of state-run media knew which street poles at Leninsky Prospect they needed to stand around so their cameras could catch Tereshkova, the hero, meeting average citizens.

Crowds and rallies were planned and heavily controlled in the Soviet capital, especially when celebrating the nation’s space achievements. The Soviets didn’t want to risk empty streets, but with Tereshkova, a lack of public enthusiasm was not an issue. She was a sensation, and the people clamored to see her.

Even Clare Booth Luce, former congresswoman and ambassador to Italy and Brazil, already known for her anti-communist views, wrote an op-ed praising Tereshkova. In LIFE magazine, 1963, Luce wrote that Tereshkova "orbits over the sex barrier" and claimed this was possible only because Soviet ideology contained a message of gender equality.

A modern patch commemorating Valentina Tereshkova's first space flight. (Patch design by Supercluster)

The truth was more complicated. Not all the founding fathers of Soviet cosmonautics approved of Tereshkova’s performance in space. And they blamed her gender for it.

Throughout the duration of her flight, Tereshkova kept telling mission control she felt fine, but by her third day in orbit it became clear she was trying to hide her exhaustion. Tereshkova unexpectedly fell asleep and missed a status call with Earth. She felt constantly nauseous, vomited, lost her appetite and failed to perform any of the planned scientific experiments. Cosmonaut Bykovsky, who could listen to all communications with Earth, heard Tereshkova’s calls to the center and thought she had been crying.

Tereshkova returned to Earth unconscious after ejecting from the spacecraft and parachuting to the ground, with a bad bruise from her helmet. When she was found by local villagers, she accepted their food and handed out her tubed space rations. Both actions were strictly against Soviet protocol. Tereshkova tried to explain that it was the space food that made her sick, but her bosses wouldn’t accept the explanation.

“No more bitches in space!” Korolev said when Tereshkova returned to Earth. Surprisingly, none of the five women trained in the space squad has ever spoken ill about the lead Soviet rocket engineer or the way he treated them while in Star City.

Korolev had dreamed of flying to space himself, but he would never meet the health requirements after suffering for years in Stalin’s prison camps. But he also believed that one day his spacecraft and rockets would become so reliable and so comfortable that the health requirements wouldn’t be necessary. His comments may have been out of frustration, because Tereshkova’s flight showed him the disappointing truth: that spaceflight will push even a healthy young body to the limit.

Tereshkova’s fellow trainee and competitor for the first flight, Valentina Ponomareva, disagreed with the criticism of her. “I have no doubts she did all she needed to accomplish, because we needed to learn how a human being would feel in orbit. The first six cosmonauts did not have any goal that would be more important than this. All scientific experiments in orbit were also important, but they were not crucial,” Ponomareva wrote.

The rest of the female space unit continued to prepare for their next flight, trusting Korolev’s word that they would all one day get to space. Kamanin tried to talk Korolev into the idea of a female group flight, but no political reason existed for the Soviets to pursue this—Tereshkova’s flight had already provided enormous propaganda value.

Korolev would die in 1966, and the next two years would bring the death of two famed cosmonauts. The parachute bringing Vladimir Komarov back to Earth after the Soyuz 1 mission failed, making Komarov the first person to die during a space flight, and Yuri Gagarin suffered a fatal crash during a routine training flight from Chkalovsky Air Base. These incidents put the entire space program on hold, and the female space unit would be dismissed by 1969. Kamanin, having failed to get his female space squad off the ground, would be forced to retire in 1971.

After their dismissal from the space squad, each woman received a comfortable apartment from the government, and the legacy of their cosmonaut training continued to have a lasting impact on their personal lives. Following the program, each former member of the squad married fellow cosmonauts. Four out of five women remained in Star City and continued working in the space industry. All files related to their training program would remain classified until the 1980s.

Valentina Tereshkova and Andryan Nikolaev during their wedding, November 3, 1963. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

Zhanna Yorkina would later tell the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that all female trainees except Tereshkova were prohibited from getting pregnant until the space squad was disbanded. Ponomareva, who gave birth to her son before joining the program, also had to obey this rule. Yorkina broke this agreement, and as a punishment, a military rank granted to all female trainees after graduation was taken away from her.

Valentina Ponomareva would earn her PhD and perform other roles in the Soviet space industry. After the collapse of the USSR, she would return to literature and author several books about her time in the space squad.

Tatyana Morozycheva, who was considered for the space squad but never accepted, would give birth to a child and continue her record-setting career in skydiving. When she retired from parachuting, she joined a local art foundation and made a good living working for private clients. Morozycheva faced drinking problems which contributed to her death, despite interventions from Tereshkova, with whom she remained close.

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, became an active political figure and remains one to this day. At the State Duma, she represents United Russia, the pro-Kremlin Party that occupies the majority of seats in the lower house of the Russian parliament.

Andryan Nikolaev, the third Soviet cosmonaut to fly to space, became Tereshkova’s first husband, and Khrushchev himself attended their wedding. A year later, their daughter was born, but Tereshkova and Nikolaev would later divorce in the 1980s. In one interview, Tereshkova said Nikolaev was great to work with, but at home he became a tyrant. Nikolayev never married again. People who knew him said he did not want to share his life with any woman but Valentina.

Tereshkova was married a second time, to a doctor. Both her husbands have since passed away.

Valentina Tereshkova in March 2017. (Photo illustration by Angela Church for Supercluster)

Today, she dislikes the press and hardly ever makes public remarks. Little is known about her life except that she is involved with a few charities and supports several orphanages. But in rare interviews, she has said she’d like to get back to space. “Mars is my favorite planet, and it’s my dream to get there to learn if life has ever existed on Mars. And if it did, why it disappeared.”

Tereshkova and Kuznetsova applied to a new Soviet training program in 1978. Both would pass health tests, but they were denied due to their age. Valentin Glushko, who led the space design bureau, said he promised Air Force marshal Savitsky to send a younger trainee, Savitsky’s daughter, Svetlana.

Glushko kept his word, and after nearly two decades, Svetlana Savitskaya would become the second Soviet woman in orbit in 1982—the same year Kamanin died.

The first American woman would not fly to space until June 1983, almost exactly 20 years after Valentina Tereshkova.

Editor’s Note, April 17, 2019: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that John Glenn was the first American astronaut, when, in fact he was the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. The story has been edited to correct that fact.


Mercury 13: The first female astronaut candidates that time forgot

Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot and later the first female shuttle commander, are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. (Photo: NASA)

Dr. Randy Lovelace was a Harvard-educated flight surgeon with the U.S. Army who became a pioneer in aeromedicine and aviation physiology — particularly with the issues surrounding high-altitude flight. He was instrumental in developing the first oxygen masks and other adaptive equipment that allowed aviators to survive in low space.

In 1940 Lovelace met Jackie Cochran, a record-holding air racer who petitioned First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to use women as pilots on the homefront in a variety of non-combat missions. That idea turned into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, better known as “WASPs,” during World War II. These female aviators served in crucial roles — test pilots, ferry pilots and maintenance check pilots — that freed up more male pilots to fight the battles that were raging across the globe. A few years later Cochran, by virtue of her friendship with Chuck Yeager, became the first woman to break the sound barrier. After that, she became the first woman to land an airplane on an aircraft carrier.

So when NASA started fielding candidates for what would eventually become the Mercury 7 astronauts, Lovelace and Cochran started a parallel effort that mirrored NASA’s rigorous testing — doable because Lovelace was a key player in designing the official program for the space agency. Along the way they asked another record-breaking female aviator, Jerrie Cobb, to join the effort. The three of them scrubbed the veteran WASP community — a population of over 700 pilots — and came up with 13 qualified females willing and able to go through their NASA-like testing.

Jerrie Cobb with Mercury capsule. (Photo: NASA)

Cobb dubbed the group “Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees” or “FLATs.” The 13 went through a series of stressful evaluations designed to see if they could hold up under the conditions in space. Ice water was injected into their ears to induce vertigo. Painful electric shocks were administered to test reflexes. Weighted stationary bicycles were used to rapidly push candidates to exhaustion. And that was just Phase I of the testing.

All 13 of the women passed Phase I, but because of family and job commitments, only three of them — Jerrie Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk — were able to travel to Oklahoma City for Phase II. Phase II involved psychological evaluations — including one that had them sit in an isolation tank for an extended period. All three woman passed.

After Jerrie Cobb passed Phase III, which included actual flights in military jet aircraft, the rest of the FLATs were invited to follow suit. But before they could gather at Naval Air Station Pensacola, the designated location, U.S. Navy officials at the base sent a telegram to the candidates that informed them that support for the project had been withdrawn because the request hadn’t come through NASA channels.

That ruling infuriated Cobb, and in 1962 she flew to Washington, D.C., to petition lawmakers to make the FLATs program an official part of NASA. Her efforts led to Rep. Victor Anfuso, R-NY, convening public hearings before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Cobb’s testimony introduced gender discrimination into the Hill’s conversation well before the Civil Right Act of 1964 made it illegal.

But the way forward for the FLATs was plagued by infighting among the principals more than unresponsive congressmen. Jackie Cochran, of all people, sensing she was losing clout among her peers, testified that setting up a special program to help women would hurt NASA. Cochran’s negative view was multiplied by the opinions of a handful of Mercury 7 astronauts, including John Glenn, who said that the absence of women in the program was “a fact of our social order.”

Glenn also pointed out that astronaut candidates were required to be graduates of one of the military’s test pilot schools, something women were not qualified to apply for in 1962, and NASA had already indicated it had no desire to waive the requirement by giving females credit for the massive amount of flight experience they had — in some cases many more flight hours than the Mercury 7 selectees. Although some in congress were sympathetic to the FLATs’ plight, Cobb’s Capitol Hill visit didn’t result in any meaningful support.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on June 16, 1963. In response, “Life” magazine published an article criticizing NASA and American decision makers. The article included photographs of all 13 FLATs, which made the entire group of women public for the first time.

NASA did not select any female astronaut candidates until 1978. Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, and in 1995 Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle. At Collins’ invitation, seven of the surviving FLATs attended her launch.

In 1995, while working on a film adaptation of the FLATs’ story, Hollywood producer James Cross coined the label “Mercury 13” for the FLATs. (Look for that title in a theater near you in the years to come.)


Female space pioneer and member of the Mercury 13, Jerrie Cobb has died at 88 years old

1 of 87 Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule. Cobb, along with 24 other women, underwent physical tests similar to those taken by the Mercury astronauts with the belief that she might become an astronaut trainee. All the women who participated in the program, known as First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLAT), were skilled pilots. But the program was not sanctioned by NASA and was shuttered. Credit: NASA Show More Show Less

2 of 87 Visiting Kennedy Space Center in 1995 as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Ratley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman, all members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees. The program was not sanctioned by NASA and was shuttered in the early 1960s. Credit: NASA Show More Show Less

Jan. 3: Doug Johnson.
Houston native and longtime local weathercaster Doug Johnson died Thursday, Jan. 3 at 79. Johnson, whose career at KPRC spanned 33 years, began as a radio announcer at the station. He also covered the weather for nearly three decades and served as the co-host of "Scene at 5" with Ron Stone.

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Jan. 13: John Luke "Jack" McConn, Jr.
John Luke McConn, Jr., who practiced law well into his 80’s and served as President of the Houston Bar Association, died on Jan. 18 at 95. McConn, known as Jack, spent nearly 30 years as a senior partner of the Houston law firm of Butler, Binion, Rice, Cook and Knapp until forming his own law practice in 1986.

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Jan. 19: Charles Cooper, left.
Charles Cooper, a former editor who oversaw the Houston Post newsroom, died on Jan. 19 from complications following heart surgery. He was 76. Despite his “when I got something to say, I’ll say it” manner, he was frequently funny and “could channel the chaos of a breaking news story on deadline as if corralling a runaway cattle stampede,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

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Jan. 28: Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas.
Tuttle and Nicholas were killed in a controversial drug raid in Pecan Park, during which HPD officers were injured by gunfire.

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Jan. 31: Tiffany Smith.
Tiffany Smith, the wife of former Texans general manager Rick Smith, died on Jan. 31, 2019. Rick Smith stepped aside after 12 seasons as the Texans' GM to focus on his wife's battle with breast cancer.

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Feb. 10: Joe Max Taylor.
Joe Max Taylor, an iconic law enforcement official and political stalwart, who served as Galveston County sheriff for 19 years, died at his home in Galveston. He was 86. During his tenure as Galveston County sheriff from 1981 through 2000, Taylor was credited with transforming and modernizing the department.

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Feb. 11: Cassandra Hollemon.
Cassandra Hollemon died just weeks after taking over the bench in Harris County Criminal Court at Law #12. She was 57. Hollemon was part of the historic moment when 17 African-American women in Harris County won spots overseeing some of the busiest courtrooms in Texas.

Feb. 11: Joe Hardy.
Joe Hardy, a producer and engineer, was best known for a longtime working relationship with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Hardy died at his Houston home this week after a short illness. He was 66.

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March 9: Freeda Foreman.
Freeda Foreman, the daughter of boxing legend George Foreman, was found dead in her Houston-area home at age 42. Her death was ruled a suicide by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences.

March 13: Lester Smith.
Lester Smith, Houston oilman and well-known philanthropist, died in March at 76. Together with wife Sue Smith, the couple has given more than $150 million to various local organizations, both through their eponymous foundation and personal donations.

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May 4: Maleah Davis.
After nearly a month-long search for the Houston 4-year-old, Davis' remains were found scattered along the side of I-30 in Arkansas. The ex-fiancé of Davis' mother was later charged in her death.

May 4: Don Collins.
Donald Collins, the former superintendent of Klein ISD, who led the district for 29 years, died at age 83 on May 4. Collins took the district from six schools to 28 schools during his 29-year tenure.

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May 10: Kathleen Eisbrenener.
Kathleen Eisbrenner, the founder and chairwoman of the board of the Houston liquefied natural gas company NextDecade, died at age 58. Eisbrenener, a pioneer in the LNG industry, founded NextDecade in 2010 and led the company to its listing on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange in July 2017.

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May 26: Joseph Thomas.
Spring High School sophomore Joseph Thomas was one of three people who drowned in Gulf-area beaches during the Memorial Day weekend.

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June 9: Bushwick Bill.
Bushwick Bill died of pancreatic cancer on June 9, 2019. Although he was not a Houston native, he spent years here as a member of Houston-based rap group The Geto Boys.

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John Walton

John Walton (left) of the regionally syndicated, Houston-based radio show “Walton and Johnson” died late July 8, 2019 after suffering from numerous medical issues, according to an announcement from his co-host Steve Johnson.

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July 22: Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.
Chris Craft, NASA’s first flight director and a legendary scientist who helped build the nation’s space program, died in July, just two days after the world celebrated the historic Apollo 11 walk on the moon. He was 95.

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July 28: Ed Wulfe.
Ed Wulfe, a real estate developer who revitalized some of Houston's most vibrant shopping districts and was a civic leader who believed community service was perhaps as important as professional success, died at 85 on July 28.

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Aug.: Carlos Cruz-Diez, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Perry House, Marshal Lightman.
Four influential members of the art community: Perry House, 75 Carlos Cruz-Diez, 95 Nancy Reddin Kienholz, 75 and Marshal Lightman, died of natural causes within six weeks leaving a broad void.

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Aug. 3: Cliff Branch.
Cliff Branch, a former Houston Worthing High School standout, was found dead of natural causes in his hotel room in Bullhead City, Arizona, at 71. His 14-year National Football League career included playing as a wide receiver with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.

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Sept. 11: Daniel Johnston.
Singer-songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston — a West Virginia native who began to develop a cult following in Austin and who spent his last few decades in Waller, Texas — died of a heart attack at 58.

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Sept. 27: Sandeep Dhaliwal.
Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal was shot and killed after a traffic stop in Cypress.

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Oct. 19: Michael Galbreth.
Michael Galbreth, part of Houston’s legendary duo known as the Art Guys, died of surgery complications. He was 63.

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Nov. 6: Nikki Araguz Loyd (right).
Nikki Araguz Loyd, a champion of transgender rights, died in her Humble home at age 44.

Dec. 7: Christopher Brewster.
HPD Sgt. Christopher Brewster was shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance.

Dec. 10: Kaila Sullivan.
Sgt. Kaila Sullivan was struck and killed by a vehicle fleeing a traffic stop just days after HPD Sgt. Christopher Brewster was killed on the job.

Dec. 12: Kevin Leago.
Kevin Leago, the trailblazing Houston firefighter with cancer who fought City Hall to provide workers' compensation benefits for his illness and won, died at age 40.

Elizabeth Conley, Staff photographer / Staff photographer Show More Show Less

Dec. 13: Vivian Gilley, wife of country legend Mickey Gilley and a founding member of the New Life Community Church in Houston, died at 80 after a battle with Alzheimer's Disease.

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Luis Valbuena, the third baseman who played an integral part on the Astros 2015 Wild Card team, died in a car accident in his native Venezuela on December 6, 2018, along with fellow former Astros player, Jose Castillo. Valbuena became known for his pronounced bat flips following any successful plate appearance and infectious smile. He played 222 career games for the Astros. (Photo: Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

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George Herbert Walker Bush, whose lone term as the 41st president of the United States ushered in the final days of the Cold War and perpetuated a family political dynasty that influenced American politics at both the national and state levels for decades, died at his home in Houston on November 30, 2018. He was 94.

Houston Texans founder and owner Bob McNair died Nov. 23, 2018. He was 81.

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Gay activist and radio personality Ray Hill died Nov. 24, 2018, of heart failure in hospice care. He was 78.

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Louis H. Jones Jr., a high-ranking Dannenbaum Engineering executive in South Texas and a subject of an FBI investigation, died by suicide Oct. 22, 2018, relatives said.

Henri Gadbois, a landscape painter who also does bluebonnet paintings, died Oct. 13, 2018.

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Clarence Brandley, a former Conroe High School janitor wrongfully convicted of the brutal murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1981, spent nearly 10 years on death row before he was exonerated because of a violation of his due process rights. He died at the age of 66 on Sept. 2, 2018.

John Bisagno, for years one of Houston’s most beloved pastors known for his passion for outreach, booming voice and willingness to tackle difficult truths, died Aug. 5, 2018. He is shown with his wife, Uldine.

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R.L. "Buddy" Frazier retired in 2009 at chief of the Katy Police Department after serving in the position for 13 years. He died Aug. 1, 2018.

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Former President George H.W. Bush's cardiologist, Mark Hausknecht, was fatally shot while riding his bicycle to work July 20, 2018.

Longtime Houston resident Anne Baker Cravens survived a German U-boat attack on Sept. 3, 1939. She died June 21, 2018

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Diane Mosier, a powerful advocate and champion for the Democratic Party in Houston, died June 29, 2018. She was 69.

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For more than three decades, Mildred McWhorter fed, clothed and ministered to thousands of Houstonians through the Christian missions she built from the ground up. Known as “Miss Mac” to the families she served, she died June 17, 2018. She was 87.

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Houston police officer Norberto Ramon, remembered as a hero who helped rescue hundreds of flood victims during Hurricane Harvey while undergoing cancer treatment, died June 15, 2018.

Joe Scott Cathey, a former Deer Park ISD trustee who served for 25 years and afterward was a familiar presence at district athletic events, died June 14, 2018. He was 88.

Officers give a 21-gun salute during the Houston Police Officers Memorial on May 18, 2018. From a former first lady to local heroes, these are some of the area residents Houston has lost in 2018.

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Lenwood Johnson, who relentlessly lobbied, badgered and annoyed government officials in an unsuccessful crusade to prevent the demolition of Houston’s largest public housing development, died May 11, 2018. He was 75.

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Jermaine Robbins, father of 11 and coach/father figure to hundreds of other young athletes in Channelview, North Shore and east Houston, died May 11, 2018, in a boating accident on Lake Conroe. He was 46.

After suffering a heart attack, Rapper Big T, Big T, whose real name is Terence Prejean, died on May 7, 2018 at the age of 52. Nicknamed the "Million Dollar Hook Man," he put out a handful of albums including"Million Dollar Hooks" in 2001 and "Power Move" in 2000.

Former first lady Barbara Bush died April 17, 2018, at age 92 of complications from congestive heart failure and respiratory issues at her west Houston home. Her husband of 73 years, George Herbert Walker Bush, was by her side, having held her hand throughout the day.

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On March 29, 2018, beloved Mets slugger who broke into majors with Colt .45s/Astros, died at 73. Staub’s best season with the Astros included 44 doubles and an All-Star appearance.

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George Oser, a former Houston ISD school board member who was instrumental in the district's desegregation process in the 1970s, died March 13, 2018. He was 81.

Houston City Councilman Larry Green died suddenly on March 6, 2018, of an overdose of methamphetamine and chloroethane, medical examiners have determined. He was 52.

Steve Gonzales / Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less

Longtime legislator and lawyer Jack 0gg, shown as his daughter Kim Ogg launches who candidacy for Harris County district attorney, died March 3, 2018. He was 84.

Former Rice football player Blain Padgett, 21, was found dead inside his Houston apartment on March 2, 2018. after his teammates noticed he missed a morning workout.

Judge Paul Clarence Murphy III, one of two Republican judges on the 14th Court of Appeals who ruled in 2000 that the 100- year-old Texas sodomy law was unconstitutional, died Feb. 26, 2018. He was 81.

Longtime Houston gossip columnist Betsy Parish, right, died at her Tanglewood-area high-rise Feb. 13, 2018. She was 71.

Larry Reese, HC staff / Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less

Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb, the first woman to pass NASA's astronaut training, has died. She was 88.

Cobb, a pioneering female pilot, was a member of the Mercury 13, a group of women who were able to complete in the early 1960s the same, physically demanding astronaut training as male candidates.

NASA squashed the program before any of these women could fly in space, but Cobb remained a steadfast advocate for women pilots throughout her lifetime &mdash even taking on revered Mercury 7 astronaut John Glenn in Congress to fight for a woman's right to be an astronaut.

When that didn't work, she changed course, spending much of her life as a missionary pilot in the Amazon jungle, delivering medicine, food and clothing to extremely isolated regions. This work earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1981.

"Gone, but never forgotten," The Oklahoma Hall of Fame at Gaylord-Pickens Museum tweeted Thursday morning. "A true pioneer, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] advocate & role model. You will be missed, Jerrie!"

She died on March 18 in Florida, according to a statement from her family. The Associated Press reported that she died after a brief illness.

"After living sixty-six adventure filled years as a pilot and advocate for female pilots, and sharing over fifty years of her life with the indigenous Indian tribes of the Amazon, Jerrie's humble smile and sky-blue eyes live on in our hearts," the statement read. "It is fitting that Jerrie was born in, and would leave us in, Woman's History Month."

News of her death comes just one day after NASA announced Wednesday that astronaut Christina Koch will make the longest female spaceflight in history, at 328 days.

About the Mercury 13

Thirteen women - known as the Mercury 13 - were recruited in the late 1950s and early 1960s to be astronauts, but NASA shut the program down. It would be another two decades before women would go into space.

  • Myrtle Cagle: Born in North Carolina in 1925, Cagle learned to fly at age 12 and had earned her private pilot's license by 19. She tried out to be a Women Airforce Service Pilot during World War II. After returning home, she became a flight instructor and, after the Mercury 13 plans were scrapped, she continued to fly in air shows and was the second woman to earn an airframe and powerplant mechanic's rating from Georgia Technical Institute.
  • Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb: Born in Oklahoma in 1931, Cobb was just 16 when she earned her private pilot's license. Before becoming part of the Mercury 13, she spent three years delivering aircraft, such as B-17 bombers, across the world. After being denied her chance in fly in space, she became a missionary pilot in the Amazon jungle, delivering medicine, food and clothing to the most isolated of regions. Because of this work, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1981. Cobb died in March at the age of 88.
  • Jan and Marion Dietrich: Born in 1926 in California, twin sisters Jan and Marion Dietrich were the only girls in their high school's aviation class. They earned their private pilot's licenses early and placed second in the All-Women's Transcontinental Air Race in 1951. Marion worked as a newspaper reporter for the Oakland Tribune and flew charter and ferry flights before she and Jan were selected as part of the Mercury 13. Marion died in 1974 from cancer. Jan died in 2008.
  • Wally Funk: Born in New Mexico in 1939, Funk has been flying professionally since 1957. Her first job at age 20 was in Oklahoma as a civilian flight instructor for U.S. Army officers. In 1970, she received the commercial glider rating and taught aeronautical science at Redondo High School in California. She also went on a goodwill flying tour for three years that covered Europe and the Middle East. In 1974, she became the first female air-safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C.
  • Janey Hart: Born in Michigan in 1921, Hart was an accomplished equestrian and an avid sailor. She earned her pilot's license at age 18 and was the first woman in Michigan licensed to fly a helicopter in the 1950s. Before joining the Mercury 13, Hart served with the Red Cross Motor Corps during World War II, driving trucks from Detroit to military bases. She was married to a senator and was an outspoken activist for women's rights. Hart, a founder of the National Organization for Women, died in 2015 at the age of 93.
  • Jean Hixson: Born in Illinois in 1922, Hixson earned her pilot's license at age 18. She trained with Women's Airforce Service Pilots during World War II and flew B-25 twin-engine bombers as an Air Force pilot. In 1957, she became the second woman to break the sound barrier. After Mercury 13 failed to get accepted by NASA, Hixson moved to Akron, Ohio, where she worked as a teacher and flight instructor. She died in 1984.
  • Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen: Born in Illinois in 1937, Jessen fell in love with flight at a young age. She learned how to fly while attending the University of Oklahoma and was a flight instructor and a commercial pilot when she was selected for the Mercury 13 program. After those plans fell apart, she became a sales-demonstration pilot for the Beechcraft factory in Kansas. She has remained active in aviation as a member of the Boise Airport Commission and president of the Ninety-Nines, a women's flying group.
  • Irene Leverton: Born in 1927 in Illinois, Leverton joined the Civil Air Patrol in 1944, flying the Piper J-3 Cub. She also served as an agriculture pilot spraying crops in Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. After the Mercury 13 was shuttered, she became an FAA Designated Accident Prevention Counselor, flew in races and flew search-and-rescue flights, as well as flights for the Arizona Border Patrol. She retired from flying in 2010 and died in 2017 at age 90.
  • Sarah Ratley: Born in 1933 in Kansas, Ratley earned her pilot's license at age 17. She became a member of the Ninety-Nines, a women's pilot association started by Amelia Earhart. She was a Whirly Girl helicopter pilot and was working as an electrical engineer at AT&T when she became a member of the Mercury 13. As of 2015, she was working as an accountant but continued to fly.
  • Bernice Steadman: Born in Michigan in 1925, Steadman earned her pilot's license at age 17 before she got her driver's license. Before becoming part of the Mercury 13, she started Trimble Aviation, where she operated her own flight school and charter service at the Bishop Airport in Flint, Mich., and in 1955, she won the All Women's Transcontinental Air Race and the All Women's International Air Race to Cuba. Later in her life, Steadman co-founded the International Women's Air and Space Museum in Ohio. She died in 2017 at the age of 89.
  • Jerri Truhill: Born in Pampa, Texas, in 1928, Truhill fell in love with flying at the age of 4 and started taking lessons at 15 without her parents' knowledge. Before becoming part of the Mercury 13, she flew twin-engine North American B-25s for Texas Instruments alongside her future husband, Joe Truhill. Later, she flew a P-51 Mustang in a pink lycra flying suit for Monsanto. She died in 2013 at the age of 85.
  • Rhea Woltman: Born in Minnesota in 1928, Woltman didn't learn to fly until after several years of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. She started as a private pilot, then became a commercial pilot and finally became a flying instructor. She was a charter pilot in Houston when she was tapped as one of the Mercury 13. In the early 1970s, she moved to Colorado to do glider training and towing for Air Force Academy cadets. She is a registered parliamentarian, which means she provides oversight of regulations at formal meetings.

Sources: National Aviation Hall of Fame, Detroit Free Press, New York Times, Dallas Observer, World Space Flight, Colorado Women's Hall of Fame, The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Gizmodo, International Women's Air and Space Museum, University of Akron

The Mercury 13

Cobb, an Oklahoma native, was 12 years old when she learned to fly, earning her pilot's license at 16.

By 28, she had logged 7,000 hours in the cockpit &mdash more than Glenn. And that's when she was approached in September 1959 by pioneering research scientist Randy Lovelace about taking the space stress test.

Lovelace helped NASA choose the first class of astronauts and thought that women would be good candidates: They were lighter, shorter, more resistant to radiation and could handle pain, heat, cold and loneliness better than men.

But the testing had to be done in secret. Women were not allowed to be military test pilots &mdash a requirement of astronaut candidates at the time.

After Cobb was tapped by Lovelace, a dozen more women were chosen, but NASA shut the program down when they learned of it. Cobb and her female colleagues took their fight to Congress in 1962.

"As pilots, we fly and share mutual respect with male pilots in the primarily man's world of aviation," Cobb told Congressional members at the time. "We see, only, a place in our Nation's space future without discrimination. . There are sound medical and scientific reasons for using women in space."

But Glenn stood in their way, telling Congress that "the fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova rocketed into space the following year. It would be another two decades before American women finally got their chance, when Sally Ride strapped into the Space Shuttle Challenger in June 1983. Ride died in 2012.

'Opening the door for us'

Cobb went on to fly humanitarian aid missions in the Amazon jungle, a calling she followed for decades.

"In what would perhaps become her greatest contribution to humanity, she flew dangerous humanitarian aid missions serving the indigenous people of the Amazon, discovering tribes of Indians never before known to man and helping them sustain life," her family wrote. "Even in the Amazon she faced gender discrimination in trying to fly for humanitarian aid groups."

For this work, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1981 and honored by the governments of Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. She even received the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award for "Humanitarian Contributions to Modern Aviation."

But she stayed in tune with the fate of female astronauts at the space agency she dreamed of joining.

When NASA decided to allow John Glenn in 1998 to fly at age 77, Cobb and others across the nation fought for her to have a chance as well. She was never allowed that chance.

"So sad to hear of the passing of #JerrieCobb," said Ellen Stofan, the John and Adrienne Mars director at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "She should have gone to space, but turned her life into one of service with grace."

Anna Fisher, one of the first six women tapped by NASA in 1978 to join the astronaut corps, told the Houston Chronicle in June that she feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the Mercury 13 &mdash and an overwhelming sense of guilt.

"They worked so hard, and they wanted it so badly, and then we came along and caught the wave at just the right time when society was changing," said Fisher, who flew on the space shuttle just once, in 1984. "I felt so grateful to them and sad, in a way, that they weren't able to achieve their dream. But they did, in a way, by opening the door for us."

Alex Stuckey writes about NASA and science for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at [email protected] or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

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Contents

Jacqueline Cochran, born Bessie Lee Pittman, in Pensacola, [2] (some sources indicate she was born in DeFuniak Springs) [3] in the Florida Panhandle, was the youngest of the five children of Mary (Grant) and Ira Pittman, a skilled millwright who frequently relocated setting up and reworking sawmills. While her family was not wealthy, Cochran's childhood living in small-town Florida was similar to those in other families of the era. Contrary to some accounts, there was always food on the table and she was not adopted, as she often claimed. [4]

Circa 1920, (she would have been 13 or 14), she married Robert Cochran and gave birth to a son, Robert, who died in 1925 at the age of 5. [5] After the marriage ended, she kept the name Cochran and began using Jacqueline or Jackie as her given name. Cochran then became a hairdresser and got a job in Pensacola, eventually moving to New York City. There, she used her looks and driving personality to get a job at a prestigious salon at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Although Cochran denied her family and her past, she remained in touch with them and provided for them over the years. Some of her family moved to her ranch in California after she remarried. They were instructed to always say they were her adopted family. Cochran apparently wanted to hide from the public the early chapters of her life and was successful in doing so until after her death.

Later Cochran met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, founder of Atlas Corp. and CEO of RKO in Hollywood. Fourteen years her senior, he was reputed to be one of the 10 wealthiest men in the world. Odlum became enamored of Cochran and offered to help her establish a cosmetics business. [6] [7]

After a friend offered her a ride in an aircraft, Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Airfield, Long Island in the early 1930s and learned to fly an aircraft in three weeks. She then soloed and within two years obtained her commercial pilot's license. Odlum, whom she married in 1936 after his divorce, was an astute financier and savvy marketer who recognized the value of publicity for her business. Calling her line of cosmetics Wings to Beauty, [8] [9] she flew her own aircraft around the country promoting her products. Years later, Odlum used his Hollywood connections to get Marilyn Monroe to endorse Cochran's line of lipstick. [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15]

Known by her friends as "Jackie", and maintaining the Cochran name, she was one of three women to compete in the MacRobertson Air Race in 1934. [2] In 1937, she was the only woman to compete in the Bendix race and worked with Amelia Earhart to open the race to women. That year, she also set a new women's world speed record. [16] By 1938, she was considered the best female pilot in the United States. She had won the Bendix and set a new transcontinental speed record as well as altitude records. [1] Cochran was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. She won five Harmon Trophies. Sometimes called the "Speed Queen", at the time of her death, no other pilot held more speed, distance, or altitude records in aviation history than Cochran. [17]

Air Transport Auxiliary Edit

Before the United States joined World War II, Cochran was part of "Wings for Britain", an organization that ferried American-built aircraft to Britain, becoming the first woman to fly a bomber (a Lockheed Hudson V) across the Atlantic. In Britain, she volunteered her services to the Royal Air Force. For several months she worked for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), recruiting qualified women pilots in the United States and taking them to England where they joined the ATA. [1] Cochran attained the rank of Flight Captain (equivalent to a Squadron Leader in the RAF or a Major in the U.S. Air Force) in the ATA.

Women Airforce Service Pilots Edit

In September, 1939, Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to introduce the proposal of starting a women's flying division in the Army Air Forces. She felt that qualified women pilots could do all of the domestic, noncombat aviation jobs necessary to release more male pilots for combat. She pictured herself in command of these women, with the same standings as Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, who was then the director of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). (The WAAC was given full military status on July 1, 1943, thus making them part of the Army. At the same time, the unit was renamed Women's Army Corps (WAC).)

That same year, Cochran wrote a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds, who was helping to organize the Air Corps Ferrying Command for the Air Corps at the time. (Ferrying Command was originally a courier/aircraft delivery service, but evolved into the air transport branch of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) as the Air Transport Command). In the letter, Cochran suggested that women pilots be employed to fly non-combat missions for the new command. In early 1941, Olds asked Cochran to find out how many women pilots there were in the United States, what their flying times were, their skills, their interest in flying for the country, and personal information about them. She used records from the Civil Aeronautics Administration to gather the data. [18]

In spite of pilot shortages, Lieutenant General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold was the person who needed to be convinced that women pilots were the solution to his staffing problems. Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps, continued as commanding general of the Army Air Forces upon its creation in June 1941. He knew that women were being used successfully in the ATA in England so Arnold suggested that Cochran take a group of qualified female pilots to see how the British were doing. He promised her that no decisions regarding women flying for the USAAF would be made until she returned. [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28]

When Arnold asked Cochran to go to Britain to study the ATA, Cochran asked 76 of the most qualified female pilots – identified during the research she had done earlier for Olds – to come along and fly for the ATA. Qualifications for these women were high: at least 300 hours of flying time, but most of the women pilots had over 1,000 hours. Those who made it to Canada found out that the washout rate was also high. A total of 25 women passed the tests and, two months later in March 1942 they went to Britain with Cochran to join the ATA. [29]

While Cochran was in England, in September 1942, General Arnold authorized the formation of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) under the direction of Nancy Harkness Love. The WAFS began at New Castle Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware, with a group of female pilots whose objective was to ferry military aircraft. Hearing about the WAFS, Cochran immediately returned from England. Cochran's experience in Britain with the ATA convinced her that women pilots could be trained to do much more than ferrying. Lobbying Arnold for expanded flying opportunities for female pilots, he sanctioned the creation of the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), headed by Cochran. In August 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD merged to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director and Nancy Love as head of the ferrying division. [30]

As director of the WASP, Cochran supervised the training of hundreds of women pilots at the former Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas from August 1943 to December 1944.

Award of the Distinguished Service Medal Edit

For her wartime service, she received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) in 1945. Her award of the DSM was announced in a War Department press release dated March 1, 1945 which stated that Cochran was the first woman civilian to receive the DSM, which was then the highest non-combat award presented by the United States government. (In actuality, however, a few civilian women received the DSM for service during the First World War. These women included Hannah J. Patterson and Anna Howard Shaw of the Council of National Defense, Evangeline Booth of the Salvation Army as well as Mary V. Andress and Jane A. Delano of the American Red Cross.) [1] [31]

At war's end, Cochran was hired by a magazine to report on global postwar events. In this role, she witnessed Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita's surrender in the Philippines [33] and was then the first non-Japanese woman to enter Japan after the War [ citation needed ] and attended the Nuremberg Trials in Germany. [34]

On September 9, 1948, Cochran joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. She was promoted to colonel in 1969 and retired in 1970. [35] She was, quite probably, the first woman pilot in the United States Air Force. [ citation needed ] During her career in the Air Force Reserve, she received three awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross for various achievements from 1947 to 1964.

Flying records Edit

Postwar, Cochran began flying the new jet aircraft, setting numerous records. She became the first woman pilot to "go supersonic".

In 1952, Cochran, at age 47, decided to challenge the world speed record for women, then held by Jacqueline Auriol. She tried to borrow an F-86 from the U.S. Air Force, but was refused. She was introduced to an Air Vice-Marshal of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) who, with the permission of the Canadian Minister of Defence, arranged for her to borrow 19200, the sole Sabre 3. Canadair sent a 16-man support team to California for the attempt. On 18 May 1953, Cochran set a new 100 km speed record of 1,050.15 km/h (652.5 mph). Later on 3 June, she set a new 15 km closed circuit record of 1078 km/h (670 mph). Encouraged by then-Major Chuck Yeager, with whom Cochran shared a lifelong friendship, on May 18, 1953, at Rogers Dry Lake, California, Cochran flew the Sabre 3 at an average speed of 652.337 mph. During the course of this run the Sabre went supersonic, and Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier. [1] [N 1]

Among her many record accomplishments, from August to October 1961, as a consultant to Northrop Corporation, Cochran set a series of speed, distance and altitude records while flying a Northrop T-38A-30-NO Talon supersonic trainer, serial number 60-0551. On the final day of the record series, she set two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world records, taking the T-38 to altitudes of 55,252.625 feet (16,841 m) in horizontal flight and reaching a peak altitude of 56,072.835 feet (17,091 m). [37]

Cochran was also the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, the first woman to pilot a bomber across the North Atlantic (in 1941) and later to fly a jet aircraft on a transatlantic flight, the first woman to make a blind (instrument) landing, the only woman ever to be president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (1958–1961), the first woman to fly a fixed-wing, jet aircraft across the Atlantic, the first pilot to fly above 20,000 feet (6,096 m) with an oxygen mask, and the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Race. She still holds more distance and speed records than any pilot living or dead, male or female. [38] [39]

Because of her interest in all forms of aviation, Cochran flew the Goodyear Blimp in the early 1960s with Goodyear Blimp Captain R. W. Crosier in Akron, Ohio.

Mercury 13 Edit

In the 1960s, Cochran was a sponsor of the Mercury 13 program, an early effort to test the ability of women to be astronauts. Thirteen women pilots passed the same preliminary tests as the male astronauts of the Mercury program before the program was cancelled. [40] [41] [42] [N 2] It was never a NASA initiative, though it was spearheaded by two members of the NASA Life Sciences Committee, one of whom, William Randolph Lovelace II, was a close friend of Cochran and her husband. Though Cochran initially supported the program, she was later responsible for delaying further phases of testing, and letters from her to members of the Navy and NASA expressing concern over whether the program was to be run properly and in accordance with NASA goals may have significantly contributed to the eventual cancellation of the program. It is generally accepted that Cochran turned against the program out of concern that she would no longer be the most prominent female aviator. [43]

On 17 and 18 July 1962, Representative Victor Anfuso (D-NY) convened public hearings before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics [44] to determine whether or not the exclusion of women from the astronaut program was discriminatory, during which John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified against admitting women to the astronaut program. Cochran herself argued against bringing women into the space program, saying that time was of the essence, and moving forward as planned was the only way to beat the Soviets in the Space Race. (None of the women who had passed the tests were military jet test pilots, nor did they have engineering degrees, which were the two basic experiential qualifications for potential astronauts. Women were not allowed to be military jet test pilots at that time. On average, however, they all had more flight experience than the male astronauts.) "NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees. In 1962, no women could meet these requirements." This ended the Mercury 13 program. [45] However, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, who were part of the Mercury 7, also did not have engineering degrees when they were selected. Both of them were granted a degree after their flights for NASA. [46] [47]

Significantly, the hearings investigated the possibility of gender discrimination a two full years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made that illegal, making these hearings a marker of how ideas about women's rights permeated political discourse even before they were enshrined in law. [45]

A lifelong Republican, Cochran, as a result of her involvement in politics and the military, became close friends with General Dwight Eisenhower. In the early part of 1952, she and her husband helped sponsor a large rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in support of an Eisenhower presidential candidacy. [1]

The rally was documented on film and Cochran personally flew it to France for a special showing at Eisenhower's headquarters. Her efforts proved a major factor in convincing Eisenhower to run for President of the United States in 1952 and she played a major role in his successful campaign. Close friends thereafter, Eisenhower frequently visited her and her husband at their California ranch and after leaving office, wrote portions of his memoirs there. [1]

Politically ambitious, Cochran ran for Congress in 1956 from California's 29th Congressional District as the candidate of the Republican Party. Her name appeared throughout the campaign and on the ballot as Jacqueline Cochran-Odlum. Although she defeated a field of five male opponents to win the Republican nomination, in the general election she lost a close election to Democratic candidate and first Asian-American congressman Dalip Singh Saund. Saund won with 54,989 votes (51.5%) to Cochran's 51,690 votes (48.5%). Her political setback was one of the few failures she ever experienced and she never attempted another run. Those who knew Cochran have said that the loss bothered her for the rest of her life. [48]

Cochran died on August 9, 1980 at her home in Indio, California that she shared with her husband until he had died four years prior. She was a long-time resident of the Coachella Valley and is buried in Coachella Valley Public Cemetery. She regularly utilized Thermal Airport over the course of her long aviation career. The airport, which had been renamed Desert Resorts Regional, was again renamed Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in her honor.

Cochran's aviation accomplishments never gained the continuing media attention given those of Amelia Earhart. Also, Cochran's use of her husband's immense wealth reduced the rags-to-riches nature of her story. Nonetheless, she deserves a place in the ranks of famous women aviators and as a woman who frequently used her influence to advance the cause of women in aviation.

Despite her lack of formal education, Cochran had a quick mind and an affinity for business and her investment in the cosmetics field proved a lucrative one. Later, in 1951, the Boston Chamber of Commerce voted her one of the 25 outstanding businesswomen in America. In 1953 and 1954, the Associated Press named her "Woman of the Year in Business".

Cochran served on the Board of Trustees for the George Washington University from 1962 until her passing in 1980.

Blessed by fame and wealth, Cochran donated a great deal of time and money to charitable works.

Distinguished Service Medal Citation Edit

For exceptionally meritorious service to the Government in a position of great responsibility from June 1943 to December 1944 as Director of Women Pilots, Headquarters Army Air Forces. She directed the planning, programming and administration or all women pilot activities of the Army Air Forces, including the organization, training and operation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Under her leadership the WASP performed with the utmost loyalty and efficiency, multiple flying services, in direct and effective support of the Army Air Forces which were of the greatest assistance and support to the war effort and the nation. Further, her achievements in this respect and the conclusions she has carefully and wisely drawn from this undertaking represent a contribution which is of permanent and far-reaching significance to the future of aviation. Her vision, skill and initiative have resulted in services of exceptional value and importance to the country. [49]

1st Distinguished Flying Cross Citation Edit

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to Colonel Jacqueline Cochran, United States Air Force, for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight from 1947 to 1951. During this period, Colonel Cochran piloted an F-51 aircraft in which she established six world speed records. At Coachella Valley, California, flying a closed-circuit 100-kilometer course, Colonel Cochran established a new speed record of 469.549 miles per hour. In other flights from Thermal, Indio, and Palm Springs, CA, Colonel Cochran established world speed records for the 3-, 15-, 500-, 1000-, and 2000-kilometer courses. The professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by Colonel Cochran reflect great credit upon herself and the United States Air Force.

2nd Distinguished Flying Cross Citation Edit

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pleasure in presenting a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Second Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross to Colonel Jacqueline Cochran, United States Air Force, for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight during April 1962. During that period, Colonel Cochran established a number of world records on a flight from New Orleans, LA to Bonn, Germany. Flying a Lockheed Jet Star C-140 Colonel Cochran established 69 intercity, intercapital, and straight-line distance records and routes, in addition to becoming the first woman to fly a jet aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean. The records were for both speed and distance. The professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by Colonel Cochran reflect great credit upon herself and the United States Air Force.

3rd Distinguished Flying Cross Citation Edit

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pleasure in presenting a Second Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Third Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross to Colonel Jacqueline Cochran, United States Air Force, for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight during May and June 1964. During this period, Colonel Cochran established three world speed records in an F-104C Starfighter. Flying a precise circular course, Colonel Cochran set a 25-kilometer record of 1429.297 miles per hour, more than twice the speed of sound. She established a record for the 100-kilometer course by flying at 1302 miles per hour. Colonel Cochran established a third world's speed record by achieving 1135 miles per hour over a 500-kilometer course. The professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by Colonel Cochran reflect great credit upon herself and the United States Air Force.

From many countries around the world, Cochran received citations and awards. In 1949, the government of France recognized her contribution to the war and aviation awarding her in 1951 with the French Air Medal. She is the only woman to ever receive the Gold Medal from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She went on to be elected to that body's board of directors and director of Northwest Airlines in the U.S. At home, the Air Force awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit. In 1949, Cochran became the fourth U.S. recipient of the Türk Hava Kurumu's (Turkish Aeronautical Association) highest award, the Murassa Brövesi (Diamond Brevet).

An annual air show called the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show is named in her honor and takes place at the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport. Cochran also became the first woman to be honored with a permanent display of her achievements at the United States Air Force Academy. In the play The Fastest Woman Alive, written by Karen Sunde, Cochran's life is chronicled alongside her husband, Floyd, Amelia Earhart, and others. [50]


From Moon Goddesses to Astronauts: Picturing Women in Space

Today&rsquos American women astronauts are actively participating in NASA space missions, and increasing numbers of female planetary scientists are serving as principal investigators in future exploratory missions in space.

These women owe much to pioneering astronauts like Dr. Sally Ride, who became America&rsquos first woman in space on the STS-7 in 1983 Dr. Mae C. Jemison, a physician who became the first African-American female astronaut in 1992, as a mission specialist on the Space Station Endeavour and Dr. Ellen Ochoa, who, in 1993, became America&rsquos first Latina woman in space and participated in four space missions.

&ldquoImaging Women in the Space Age,&rdquo my new exhibit now on view at the New York Hall of Science in Queens through November 2019, showcases these women&rsquos remarkable achievements&mdashand also highlights how the idea of women in space has long fascinated filmmakers, television writers, advertisers and fashion designers.

Italian designer Emilio Pucci created plastic bubble helmets for Braniff Airlines&rsquo flight attendants in the 1960s, and André Courrèges created fanciful fashions for the space age. Space women were featured in popular films of the 1960s and 1970s&mdashincluding Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda, and Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver&mdashand space women appeared in vintage American television series like &ldquoLost in Space&rdquo and &ldquoStar Trek.&rdquo And even thousands of years before that, there were cultural images of moon goddesses such as Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon also known as Selene Luna, in Ancient Rome and Chang&rsquoe, in China.

But for all the cultural fantasies, real-life female aviators, and women who wanted to join America&rsquos astronaut program, often had to confront resistance and skepticism about their capabilities.

Pioneering female pilots like Ruth Law and Amelia Earhart, and the WASPs&mdashWomen Air Force Service Pilots who ferried planes and were instructors in World War II&mdashall proved their remarkable prowess, but, as I wrote about in my book Women and the Machine: Representations From the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age, they frequently had to confront and disprove gender stereotypes about their abilities.

Being admitted to NASA&rsquos astronaut program was not easy for women aviators. In the early 1960s, the group of 13 American women flyers later called the &ldquoMercury Thirteen,&rdquo including Geraldyn &ldquoJerrie&rdquo Cobb, successfully passed the same physiological tests given to would-be American male astronauts, but the program ended with the Navy withdrew its cooperation. (The civilian tests for the &ldquoWomen in Space&rdquo program&rdquo were given by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II at his foundation clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.)

NASA&rsquos requirements for the astronaut program at the time would have prevented the women from becoming astronauts in any case: Astronauts were required to have training as test pilots for jets and have engineering degrees, and because American women were not yet allowed to be fighter pilots, they weren&rsquot admitted to America&rsquos two military training schools offering the needed test pilot instruction.

The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshokova, in 1963, but it wasn&rsquot until 1978 that the first group of American women were admitted to NASA&rsquos astronaut training program&mdashleading to Sally Ride&rsquos landmark mission as first American women in space.

Remarkable African-American women mathematicians like Katherine Johnson, who were instrumental in calculating flight trajectories for NASA&rsquos Mercury missions, also had to deal with racism&mdashas so compellingly portrayed in the Hollywood film Hidden Figures. (Johnson was later asked to use her mathematical skills in helping with the Apollo 11 mission.)

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, filmmakers and television producers are still fascinated by portrayals of women in space&mdashseen in Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock&mdashand fashion designers like the late Karl Lagerfeld are still being inspired by the world of space. There are also more and more American women are in NASA&rsquos astronaut program&mdashtoday, women make up about one-third of the astronaut pool. There is still a need to encourage more young women to enter into space-related academic programs, and still gaps in their representation, but women today are working as astrophysicists and aerospace engineers.

One of today&rsquos remarkable ground-breakers is Dr. Dava J. Newman, Apollo Professor of Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT&mdashwho, working with colleagues, students and collaborators throughout the world, has been developing the BioSuit. These &ldquosecond skin&rdquo form-fitting suits will allow for greater mobility than today&rsquos bulky and stiff gas-filled space suits and are revolutionary in design.

As Dr. Newman wrote to me, these new space suits will have a &ldquocustom fit and custom design, so you can tell the difference between female, male, tall, short, etc. It&rsquos a unique suit for each unique wearer.&rdquo She added that the suits will help to be an inspiration for girls and young women. &ldquoI do believe they need to &lsquosee&rsquo themselves as astronauts and aerospace engineers to open up their minds and to allow themselves to accomplish these dreams!&rdquo (Indeed, NASA also needs something for them to wear.)

Soon there will be more exciting developments. NASA is gearing up to land its first female on the moon in 2024&mdasha mission which will aptly be named Artemis, the goddess of the moon.


Watch the video: the mercury 13