Lori Wyer’s WS320 Blog

Jerrie the “Astronaut”

Jerrie Cobb, pilot     On May 5, 1961, approximately one month after the Soviets had already accomplished the feat, the sent the first man into space.  Alan Shepherd was one of an elite group of seven astronauts, called the “Mercury 7″. This homogonous group of men was put forth as the perfect picture of the American astronaut. All were married Protestant men with families, from small towns and with a military background. But there were those that didn’t agree with this image. Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, of the Lovelace Foundation, was one of the skeptics. Lovelace was contracted by NASA to oversee all the medical testing for the Mercury 7 astronauts.  Ahead of his time, he was curious how a woman would respond to the same extensive physical testing the Mercury 7 were subjected to.  He was also among an elite group that was certain that the Soviets were planning to send a woman into space next.  The United States scoffed at this idea.  In their view, a woman simply could not be an astronaut.   

In 1960, Jerrie was approached by Lovelace and invited to undergo the same rigorous testing that the Mercury 7 astronauts underwent.  With great excitement and anticipation, Jerrie began her own personal training regimen to prepare herself for the rigors of the testing.  There was one stipulation: her testing must be kept secret.  Jerrie could not share any of this information with her friends or family or even let on that she was any part of the “girl astronaut program”.

On February 14, 1960, at the age of twenty-eight, Jerrie arrived at the Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, New Mexico to begin her testing.  This assignment put a great deal of pressure on Jerrie.  If she failed or did not meet expectations, it could ruin the chances of any other woman getting to participate in the testing or be a candidate for the space program. 

And so it began.  A battery of tests designed to determine the physical capabilities of astronaut candidates.  Jerrie endured blood tests, xrays, inversion tables, vertigo induced by ice cold water syringed into her ear, and exercise bikes designed to push her to the brink of unconsciousness.  She was also locked inside an iron capsule designed to test her claustrophobia.  Jerrie passed all the medical tests with flying colors.  Later, she would find out that she scored in the top 2% of all that were tested; both men and women (Nolen, pg 95).

Jerrie’s flying abilities were also tested.  She had to “fly” the MASTIF (Multi-Axis Spin Test Inertia Facility (Nolen, p 96).  The purpose of this machine was to simulate the ride she would experience in space, with more twists and turns and tumbles than you could possibly imagine.  It was nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” by the Mercury 7.  Many of the astronauts were not able to successfully complete the flight on their first attempt.  Jerrie, however, passed with flying colors. 

That following summer, at an international convention of aerospace scientists in Stockholm, Lovelace revealed Jerrie’s results.  He explained that he personally administered the test and the preliminary tests show that she would hold up well in space.  Additionally, he advocated the use of females in space, arguing that his test subject used less oxygen per minute than the men used, therefore lessening the amounts of oxygen that would have to be cargoed into space for a female astronaut (Nolen, pg 97).   Lovelace went on to report that his subject tolerated heat and pain better than the men test subjects, and having internal reproductive organs lowered her risks from radiation.  He concluded, “We are already in a position to say that certain qualities of the female space pilot are preferable to those of her male colleague” (Nolen pg 98).

Jerrie Cobb graced the cover of Life magazine on August 21, 1960. Her life would never be the same.  For the shy, introverted pilot, this could prove to be a nightmare!  After the media onslaught, however, NASA’s official position was that currently there was no official program for female astronauts, nor were there any plans for one in the immediate future.

Jerrie’s unprecedented and remarkable results, however, prompted Lovelace to test other women aviators as well.  Of the twenty-five women invited to participate in testing, only nineteen accepted.  In the end, twelve other women passed the tests and were considered candidates for the “final phase of the women-in-space program” (Nolen pg 112).

The Early Years

Jerrie the Astronaut

What Happened to the Women-in-Space Program?

Awards and Honors

Trends

Technology at the Time

Jerrie Now

Conclusion

Bibliography

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