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Fighting for Space
Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight
Read by Amy Shira Teitel
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When the space age dawned in the late 1950s, Jackie Cochran held more propeller and jet flying records than any pilot of the twentieth century—man or woman. She had led the Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots during the Second World War, was the first woman to break the sound barrier, ran her own luxury cosmetics company, and counted multiple presidents among her personal friends. She was more qualified than any woman in the world to make the leap from atmosphere to orbit. Yet it was Jerrie Cobb, twenty-five years Jackie's junior and a record-holding pilot in her own right, who finagled her way into taking the same medical tests as the Mercury astronauts. The prospect of flying in space quickly became her obsession.
While the American and international media spun the shocking story of a "woman astronaut" program, Jackie and Jerrie struggled to gain control of the narrative, each hoping to turn the rumored program into their own ideal reality—an issue that ultimately went all the way to Congress.
This dual biography of audacious trailblazers Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb presents these fascinating and fearless women in all their glory and grit, using their stories as guides through the shifting social, political, and technical landscape of the time.
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The first half of the twentieth century was an interesting time for America.
Our story starts in 1912, the year the Titanic sank while carrying more than 2,200 people from England to New York. Steamships and other boats were the only way people could cover vast oceanic distances. There were no transatlantic flights; airplanes were fodder for the rich and daring to soar moderately high above a gathered crowd for minutes at a time.
The First World War changed that. Aerial officers flew ahead of soldiers on foot to get the lay of the land, then they carried guns as protection, and finally, those guns were fixed to the front of the planes. A pilot could aim his gun by aiming his aircraft, relying on an interrupter gear to ensure the propeller blades never got in the way of automatically firing bullets. Wood and fabric fuselages soon gave way to all-metal vehicles, and by the end of the war pilots routinely engaged in swirling aerial dogfights. For civilians, these stories imbued flying with unparalleled excitement and a feeling the future was right over the horizon.
As these high-performance planes became available to private pilots, the Everyman took a step closer to the sky. Aviators dazzled audiences with aerial displays. Sometimes, lucky onlookers could even take a ride in a plane, either at a county fair or at a small airport that offered rides for a small fee. Flying held allure. It was romantic, thrilling, dangerous, and the pilots who flew were like no one else on Earth.
Coincident with the end of the First World War was the first wave of feminism; suffragettes fought for equality and won women the right to vote in 1920. Women had freedoms they'd never known, a change in status that saw echoes in fashion and culture. Women eschewed restrictive clothing in favor of skirts and trousers that offered physical freedom. In this newly emancipated climate, women took to the sky, though this wasn't without challenges. Few men would consent to teach women to fly, and even fewer would take on African American students. When Bessie Coleman decided she wanted to earn her pilot's license, she had to train in France, where she met no racial barrier in getting a license. When she returned to America in 1921 at the age of twenty-nine, she was greeted with press coverage and enthusiastic audiences. Female aviators held a different appeal; if men flying was exciting, women flying was a novelty like no other. The sky was starting to open to women.
Regardless of gender, flying had the power to turn everyday people into heroes, and no one embodied this phenomenon as completely as Charles Lindbergh. After he made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, he went from unknown air mail pilot to celebrity overnight. When Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane, her fame similarly skyrocketed even though she was merely a passenger on that flight. Regardless, women watching these feats were inspired to follow suit, and by 1929 there were ninety-nine licensed women pilots of all backgrounds in the United States. That same year, Amelia was a founding member of an all-female flying society called the Ninety-Nines, which is still active today.
As the United States sank into the Depression in the 1930s, women working became increasingly commonplace. Wives, mothers, and daughters did their part to help their families escape the poverty that touched nearly every corner of the country. For the women who could afford luxury activities in the period, flying became more popular; by the end of the decade, there were more than 500 licensed women pilots in the country. Women's independent streak was mirrored in pop culture. Fictional heroines, even in love stories, were often defined by their jobs and passions as much as their womanhood. Take Rosalind Russell (a friend of our heroine Jackie, whom you'll meet in a moment) in His Girl Friday (1940). Rosalind is prepared to quit her job as a reporter to marry Ralph Bellamy and enjoy the domesticity that comes with married life. But her boss and ex-husband Cary Grant (another acquaintance of Jackie's) isn't prepared to let her go. So he woos her, not with the promise of a big house and children but with a story of an escaped accused murderer she can't resist covering. Rosalind isn't just a woman, she's a hard-hitting reporter, and that's what Cary loves most about her.
The Second World War brought new opportunities for women. As men went off to fight, women took their places in factories earning the same pay as their male counterparts. Military programs gave women more immediate ways to serve their country. The Army Air Force had the WASPs (Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots), the Navy had the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and the Army had its WACs (Women's Army Corps). For the first time since the Civil War, American women could earn military recognition. They took pride in their work, and almost all hoped their independence would persist after the war's end.
But the same government that made Rosie the Riveter a wartime icon for working women put her in the kitchen in the 1950s. After decades of upheaval from the Depression and Second World War, postwar America focused on family values, and government propaganda campaigns followed suit. God was added to currency and the Pledge of Allegiance. A woman's role was now that of wife and mother with ideals of "womanhood" wrapped up in her biology. The postwar woman married younger and had more children. Her home was her castle, equipped with appliances to free her from the drudgery of cleaning, television for entertainment, and the PTA as a social outlet. Fictional women changed, too. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) want nothing more and are consequently defined by their search to find rich husbands who can shower them in diamonds. "Career woman" became a dirty word; it was wrong for a woman to express desires outside her biology.
Postwar America was also defined by a widespread fear of Communism. Political leaders, most notably Republican senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, told the public that they should be fearful of subversive Communist influence in their lives. Communists could be lurking anywhere. They could be teachers, artists, or journalists using their platforms to advance the spread of Communism throughout the world, and the danger lay in its challenge to the American way of life. In this climate, women choosing career over family were sometimes viewed as a similar threat to American family values. To this end, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a woman declaring herself a feminist was, to some, akin to declaring herself a Communist. By and large, women were suddenly marginalized by society in a way they hadn't been for decades, and minority women faced renewed discrimination on account of both their gender and their race.
This return of women to the home coincided with the postwar technological boon that saw the advent of jet planes, supersonic flight, rocket-powered planes, and the first satellites. Spaceflight was on the horizon at the same time that women were barred from a number of the opportunities they'd had for decades.
It was the women who grew up in the prewar years, the generation who had never known a world where so much was denied them, who took on this new world order and forced the change that became the second wave of feminism. In 1963, the year our story ends, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published, which shed light on the epidemic of ennui affecting housewives throughout America. Though segregation was already being dismantled, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal employment and desegregated public facilities. The second wave of feminism characterized by the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s truly began to allow all women to define themselves as more than their biology.
This is the changing world in which our story takes place.
Born in 1906, Jackie Cochran entered her adult years right around the time women started to enjoy post-suffrage freedoms. She learned to fly not long after Amelia Earhart was elected president of the Ninety-Nines and had the fortune to cement her reputation as a pilot in the 1930s when air races made pilots celebrities. It helped, too, that she was married to one of the richest men in the country; Floyd Odlum could buy her the cutting-edge planes that won her races. She was perfectly positioned with both a skill level and celebrity to lead the WASPs in the Second World War. Postwar, nothing was going to send Jackie back into the kitchen. She became the first woman to fly faster than sound in 1953 and ultimately secured more records than any pilot in the twentieth century, male or female, full stop. She also ran a luxury cosmetics company, was personal friends with multiple presidents, and was so determined to hide her true parentage that she invented the story that she was raised an orphan. She is, in short, an incredibly complex woman.
Jerrie Cobb, twenty-five years Jackie's junior, comes into our story and America during the Depression. She never knew a world where women didn't have the vote. When she was a preteen, her father briefly owned an airplane, so flying was accessible. Her formative teenage years were thus spent pursuing flight licenses at a time when it was neither common nor unheard of for a woman to aspire to a flying career. In the 1950s, however, she came face to face with the biases against women flyers. She fought tooth and nail to earn her living as a pilot—it wasn't glamorous or comfortable, but it was the life she loved.
Both Jackie and Jerrie, neither of whom let social norms compromise their love of flight, wanted to move into the space age with America. By the time NASA began recruiting astronauts in 1959, Jackie was too old. Jerrie, however, was the perfect age to take on what she felt was injustice barring women from joining the astronaut corps. She took the same medical tests as NASA's first group of astronauts, albeit through a private program completely unaffiliated with the space agency, and believed this qualified her to fly in space. After a handful of other female pilots followed in her footsteps, she hoped the group might convince NASA to start a female astronaut program so she could get a mission.
When we talk about women wanting to fly in space in the 1960s, it's easy to look at the story from our modern standpoint and cry gender discrimination. But we can't ignore the social and political context in which our story takes place, nor can we overlook the other players who impact what happened. We have Randy Lovelace, a pioneer in aviation medicine and the physician behind the medical testing program, who had more important professional interests he had to protect. We also must get to know Lyndon Johnson, the senator whose lingering depression after being elected vice president impacted the way he dealt with issues crossing his desk. We also have to look at the broader context of what was happening in space. The early 1960s was the time when President Kennedy challenged America to land a man on the Moon within the decade. Managing that Herculean task fell to Jim Webb, NASA's administrator, who didn't want to complicate things by adding women to the space agency.
The history underlying this story and the varying perspectives is vital, and there's a lot of history layered into the narrative because the story needs context. In the interest of exploring every avenue, I spent the better part of four years researching not only these women and the players who shaped their stories, but the media's portrayal of women pilots, domestic and international politics, as well as the evolution of flight, spaceflight, and women's rights. In addition to reading dozens of books, I recovered thousands of pages—letters, memos, records of invitations, photographs, interview transcripts, and even handwritten notes—from the Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidential libraries, the NASA archives, and other collections both public and private throughout the country. I also interviewed a handful of experts, among them Gene Nora Jessen, one of the female pilots whom you'll meet in these pages. Sadly, most of the people in this story have passed.
But I endeavored to bring them to life in these pages. I want you to marvel at Jackie's daring, get swept up in Jerrie's romance, feel the excitement of a record-breaking flight, and experience the excruciating frustration of a dream slipping away. All the women in this story are like the screen heroines of the 1930s and 1940s. They are not defined by "womanhood." They are pilots and identified as such. They are flyers as well as wives, mothers, and businesswomen. They are incredible, multifaceted people trying to eke out their place in aviation and space while navigating love, family, and friendship, always without compromising who they are.
Jackie Cochran, née Bessie Pittman (1906–1980)
After learning to fly in 1932, Jackie became the foremost pilot of the twentieth century, holding more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other pilot in the world. She also won multiple aviation trophies, owned the Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetics company, and counted notable figures like Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Doolittle, and Amelia Earhart among her closest friends.
Floyd Odlum (1892–1976)
Floyd was a lawyer, industrialist, and businessman described as perhaps the only man to profit off the Great Depression. He and Jackie met in 1932 and married four years later. Throughout their lives together, Floyd facilitated giving Jackie everything she could ever want.
Amelia Earhart (1897–1937)
One of the most notable pilots of her era, Amelia pursued distance flights while Jackie pursued speed records in the 1930s. The two were such close friends that Amelia was the only guest at the Indio Ranch to sleep in Jackie's own bed when she was there alone.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973)
A congressman when he and Jackie met in 1940, the two became fast friends and remained close as Lyndon became a senator, then vice president, and finally president.
Randy Lovelace (1907–1965)
Trained at the Harvard Medical School before doing his residencies at New York's Bellevue Hospital and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Randy gained an interest in aviation medicine working at the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas. From there, he became a leading pioneer in aviation medicine. He helped design the oxygen mask Jackie used in the 1938 Bendix for which he won the 1939 Collier Trophy, and in 1959 NASA asked him to run the medical portion of the Mercury astronauts' selection process at his own Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico.
Don Flickinger (1907–1997)
Like his colleague Randy Lovelace, Don became acquainted with aviation medicine at the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas. The pair worked together for many years, including the Mercury astronauts' medical testing.
Jerrie Cobb (1931–2019)
Jerrie discovered flying before she was a teenager, and knew she wanted to spend her life in the clouds. She earned licenses as quickly as she could and managed to find enough flying jobs to become a career pilot. In 1960, she took the same medical tests given to the Mercury astronauts, launching her on her personal quest to become the first woman in space.
Jim Webb (1906–1992)
Jim was a trained lawyer and worked as a congressional assistant, served with the Marine Corps, and held the position of director of the Bureau of the Budget and undersecretary of state under President Truman before taking the role of NASA administrator under President Kennedy.
Hugh Latimer Dryden (1898–1965)
Hugh spent his career on the cutting edge of aviation and aeronautics. He was among the pioneers of supersonic flight before working on missile development during the Second World War. Postwar, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and eventually became its first ever director. He led the NACA into supersonic and hypersonic flight programs before taking the role of deputy administrator when the NACA morphed into NASA.
Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower (1890–1969)
During the Second World War, Ike was a five-star general in the United States Army (as of 2019 he remains one of only five men to ever hold this rank) and supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe; in this capacity he played a major role in orchestrating the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944. Between 1953 and 1961, he served as the thirty-fourth president of the United States.
Robert Pirie (1905–1990)
A naval aviator himself, Robert served as deputy chief of naval air operations from 1958 to 1962, the period in which the women were hoping to take additional astronaut tests at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola.
Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold (1886–1950)
Hap was a general of the army and then chief of the Army Air Force during the Second World War. The air force became a separate service branch in 1947, and in 1949 Hap was named its first general and awarded a five-star rank by the US Congress.
Chuck Yeager (1923– )
Chuck was a United States Air Force officer who moved into experimental flight testing after the Second World War. In 1947, he became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight. Known as one of the most intuitive pilots, he flew a variety of high-speed aircraft in his career, as well as instructing other test pilots, Jackie being one of his many students.
John Glenn (1921–2016)
After dropping out of college in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, John became a marine aviator who served in both the Second World War and the Korean War. He eventually moved into flight testing, training at the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland, before working for the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. He had about 9,000 hours of flying time, 3,000 of which were in jets, when he was selected as a Mercury astronaut in 1959.
Wally Funk (1940– )
Flying professionally since 1957, Wally had a stunning career. In addition to working as a flight instructor, Wally notably served as the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and served as the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector. She also applied for NASA's astronaut corps twice once the agency started accepting women.
Jerri Sloan (1929–2013)
Jerri learned to fly as a teenager and enjoyed a lifelong career as a pilot. Notably, she worked as a research pilot flying North American B-25s for Texas Instruments and served as vice president to both Air Freighters International and Air Services, Inc.
Bernice "B" Steadman, née Trimble (1925–2015)
B Steadman was an American aviator, businesswoman, and frequent face in the air race circuit in the mid-century. She founded the Trimble Aviation School before she was married and thus became one of the few women in the country to own and operate her own school. She also served as president of the Ninety-Nines.
Myrtle "K" Cagle (1925– )
When K earned her wings at the age of fourteen, she was the youngest pilot in her home state of North Carolina. This started her on a career path that saw her earning her commercial and multi-engine licenses and working as a flight instructor, flight instrument instructor, and ground instructor. She also ran her own charter plane service near Raleigh.
Gene Nora Jessen, née Stumbough (1937– )
Gene Nora quit her job as a flight instructor at the University of Oklahoma for the Pensacola tests. After the tests were cancelled, she joined a sales demonstration team of Beechcraft aircraft. As one of the Three Musketeers, she flew in formation over the contiguous forty-eight states before setting up her own Beechcraft dealership in Boise, Idaho.
Rhea Woltman, née Hurrle (1927– )
Rhea earned her commercial pilot's license with single- and multi-engine ratings and was even a licensed seaplane pilot and held multiple instructor ratings. She retired from flying midway through the 1960s.
Irene Leverton (1927–2017)
Irene held multiple licenses and taught hopeful pilots to fly gliders, single-engine planes, and multi-engine planes. She even tested pilots for the FAA. In the early 2000s, she was presented with the Civil Air Patrol's Commander's Commendation Award and its Meritorious Service Award, as well as the FAA's Master Pilot Award. She's been inducted into multiple aviation halls of fame.
Jean Hixson (1922–1984)
Jean joined the WASPs late in the war, graduating in Class 44-6. Postwar, she worked as a flight instructor while earning her degree in education, which launched her second career as a schoolteacher. She continued teaching and flying until her retirement a little over a year before her death.
Jan Dietrich (1926–2008)
One of two girls in her aviation class in high school, Jan parlayed her love of flight into a full-time career. She worked as a flight instructor as well as a corporate pilot for a construction company in California, and earned advanced licenses including her airline transport pilot license.
Marion Dietrich (1926–1974)
The other of two girls in her aviation class in high school, Marion's love of flying led to a career in journalism, though she flew charter flights and ferried aircraft in her spare time.
Janey Briggs Hart (1921–2015)
After earning her pilot's license during the Second World War, Janey added helicopter pilot to her résumé, becoming the first licensed woman in her home state of Michigan. Outside of flying, Janey had a keen interest in politics; she was a liberal democrat along with her husband, Senator Philip Hart. She was also an avid sailor and mother of eight.
Sarah Ratley, née Gorelick (1933– )
Sarah learned to fly before she learned to drive and earned a slew of licenses including her commercial pilot's license, multi-engine land and water instrument rating, and helicopter pilot license. She earned a bachelor's of science in mathematics, minoring in physics, chemistry, and aeronautics, before switching tracks completely in the mid-1960s to work as an accountant with the IRS.
Muscogee, Florida, 1912
- "In this smart, fun, compelling, and deeply researched book, Teitel tells the tale of Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, who scrapped with each other and, more important, with a blinkered, male-dominated space agency, for their chance to be among the first humans to leave the planet. It's a story of ambition, talent, gender equality, and of a media frenzy that seems more twenty-first century than 1950s. Teitel's prose is as infectious as the space-history videos that have made her a YouTube sensation, and she has picked a story that must have been a delight to write. It's certainly a delight to read."—Jeff Kluger, author of Apollo8 and coauthor of Apollo 13 with Jim Lovell
- "History is often not as simple as it seems. In the case of Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, this book offers a revealing insight on two characters we thought we knew but didn't. From different generations and with profoundly different but equally dogged motivations, these two pilots crossed paths and fought battles in the new world of women pushing for a place in the air, and perhaps even in space. Amy Shira Teitel digs beneath the stories to reveal motivations that are not always as straightforward and admirable as other accounts suggest. A wealth of original research reminds us that people are complex, and sometimes it is those complexities that allow them to get as far as they do in the pursuit of enormous goals-or hold them back."—Francis French, author of In the Shadow of the Moon
- "Spaceflight historian Teitel took a deep dive into a host of public records to craft this dual biography of Cochran and Cobb, creating a firm portrait of two driven and determined individuals."—Booklist
- "Cleverly intertwines the stories of two women pilots...Teitel allows us to feel personally engaged with two fascinating characters who each made pretty quirky decisions...A remarkable story."—Medium
- On Sale
- Feb 25, 2020
- Hachette Audio