Often in history, there are people who accomplish some magnificent feat but go unappreciated until someone brings attention to that accomplishment. Jerrie Cobb is one of those individuals.
If someone mentions Mercury 7, most will know what it is, as well as who the astronauts were on board. Most also remember Apollo 13 and Buzz Aldrin, plus other great heroes of space. But who knows Jerrie Cobb? She was chosen as the first female astronaut, but was cheated of glory by a cruel twist of fate.
Jerrie Cobb was born in 1931 in Ponca City, Oklahoma. By the age of 12, she had already learned to fly. Just four years later she left home to barnstorm in a circus Cub. When Jerrie turned 18 she was already teaching others how to fly and actually won the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement. At 21, she was flying around the world for the Air Force, and less than a year later met her fiancé, Jack Ford, when she worked for him performing the unpleasant task of flying planes to the Peruvian Air Force. This was a long journey over jungles, shark-infested waters and, of course, the Andean Peaks.
After a two-year engagement, Ford died in a tragic aircraft accident. Jerrie returned to Ponca City where she set four world aviation records for speed, distance and two for absolute altitude. She was also named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association, and Woman of the Year in Aviation, as well as being named one of the 100 most important young people in the United States.
In 1959, she passed all three phases of the Mercury astronaut tests, but NASA officials admitted years later in a Congressional probe that they had no intentions of allowing women into space. And so Jerrie was cheated of her chance to be the first woman in space. In 1963, that chance disappeared forever when the Soviet Union launched Valentina Tereshkova, a 26-year-old textile worker, into space. (It wasn't until 1978 that NASA officially started training female astronauts.)
Cheated of glory in space, Jerrie resigned herself to serving as a consultant to NASA. She then began mission work in the most remote, uncharted part of the Amazon rainforest. She spent 38 years delivering food, medical supplies, seeds and clothing to indigenous villages in South and Central America. In 1964 she was given an honorary rank in the Colombian Air Force for her accomplishments. Jerrie was honored by the government of Ecuador for "pioneering new air routes over the Andes mountains and Amazon jungle."
Over the next few years, the governments of Peru, Colombia and Brazil honored her as well for her "humanitarian flying serving primitive tribes." She was even rewarded by the French government for her service to humanity.
In 1973 she was named the top woman pilot in the world by Richard Nixon in a White House ceremony. It was not until 1981, though, that she received the nomination for the prestigious Nobel Prize for Peace.
Since then, Jerrie Cobb has been honored by many humanitarian and aviation organizations. Yet she still remains an obscure figure. It seems a travesty that a woman who has done so much for the world can be ignored, while others are household names. Most elementary-school students can tell you who Christa McAuliffe is, and she is known more for her tragic failure to reach space. Even many foreign astronauts are more well-known than Jerrie Cobb.
It is a tragedy that she should be forgotten. Jerrie Cobb personifies the unique American spirit every bit as much as Rosie the Riveter or Marilyn Monroe. She is a selfless humanitarian who never gives up. Jerrie Cobb is an obscure but defining character in American history.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.