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Pioneer 'Astronautrix' Aims High

Space: Jerrie Cobb had all the right stuff. But, as a Mercury official explains it, 'Had we lost a woman back then because we decided to fly a woman rather than a man, we would have been castrated.' John Glenn's upcoming flight gives her new hope.

July 26, 1998|MARCIA DUNN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Instead of an astronaut, or astronautrix or astronette as the news media dubbed her, NASA made Cobb a consultant. She traveled across the country, drumming up support for the space program. One week after commenting, "I'm the most unconsulted consultant in any government agency," she was out.

So ended Cobb's chance of becoming the first woman in space. That honor went to the Soviet Union's Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. That year, a heartbroken Cobb moved to South America and began ferrying medicine and supplies for church groups. She formed a nonprofit foundation to finance the effort.

It was there, on July 20, 1969, that Cobb learned via her plane radio that Armstrong and Aldrin had landed on the moon. She couldn't wait to share the news with the tribe at her refueling stop.

In her recent autobiography, "Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot," Cobb recalls being bewildered by the Indians' indifference until a young shaman patiently explained: "Even the youngest among us knows that one of our shaman ancestors, Birdman, flew to the moon many times."

That night, Cobb danced on the wings of her plane in the moonlight. "You are fulfilling my deepest dream," she whispered to the men on the moon. "Vaya con Dios, my brothers."

Twelve years later, Cobb was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in the rain forest. And two years after that, in 1983, an American woman, Sally Ride, finally soared into space.

Only in 1995 did NASA launch its first female space pilot, Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins. Next January she goes up again, as NASA's first woman space commander.

Cobb attended Collins' 1995 shuttle launch, as did most of the 11 surviving female astronaut candidates from the early 1960s who call themselves the Flats, short for Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees.

One of them, Myrtle "K" Cagle, 73, a pilot and airplane mechanic from Macon, Ga., wishes Cobb the best and "would be there to see her off." But she stops short of saying Cobb would be the best of their bunch. So does Jerri Truhill.

"They ought to send all of us," says Truhill, 68, a retired pilot from Dallas. However, "if she can get them to send her, more power to her."

Cobb says she'll do whatever it takes, as long as there's hope.

"I won't sit here endlessly, no. I will not waste my life," she says. "Just like the last 38 years. I could have camped out on NASA's doorsteps, but I would have wasted a lot of fun times, a lot of great times, and a lot of help that I've been able to give other people."

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