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Jacqueline Cochran
Jacqueline Cochran was an aviation pioneer who argued in World War II that female pilots were as capable as their male counterparts, but, two decades later, was less supportive of prospective female astronauts. (credit: USAF)

When the steel hand wavered and an opportunity was lost


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Jacqueline Cochran was a renowned aviator and a pioneer on many levels. “Hers was a lifetime of firsts: she was the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean in 1941; the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953; the first civilian woman to earn the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal,” one obituary described of her life. In the 1960s, she was regarded as the foremost female pilot in the world, and she would come to hold more than 200 aviation records for speed, altitude, and distance. Cochran seemed to be breaking records and new ground her whole life—always going faster, higher, and further. Known as “a steel hand in a velvet glove,” she also organized and directed the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II. Although she faced tremendous opposition, Cochran proved that female pilots could make a significant contribution to the war effort. She was always pushing the limits, and she greatly affected the progress of aviation and the role of women in aviation. Cochran was a pioneer in extending the boundaries of female accomplishments, but in 1962 the “steel hand” wavered, and a significant opportunity was lost.

Of all the female aviation figures of the time, Jacqueline Cochran seems to be one who might have been prominent in supporting their goal. It is somewhat of a mystery that she did not.

In the early 1960s, 13 American women, who became known as the Mercury 13, passed the physical and psychological tests for astronauts in a secret training program—but before further testing could continue, the program was abruptly cancelled. Various reasons were given for the cancellation of the program, but it appears the cancellation was rooted in the sexism of the time and the inability of the thirteen women to overcome what Clare Boothe Luce called “the hurdle of male prejudice.” The women had the right stuff; they were just the wrong gender. As a recent essay in The Atlantic put it, “the sexism of the day overwhelmed the science of the day.”

In 1962, during hearings before a special subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Astronautics, Jerrie Cobb, one of the Mercury 13 women, argued for continuation of their testing program: “We seek, only, a place in our Nation’s space future without discrimination.” The 13 women wanted to continue their testing and to be seriously considered as astronaut candidates. Of all the female aviation figures of the time, Jacqueline Cochran seems to be one who might have been prominent in supporting their goal. It is somewhat of a mystery that she did not.

In the 1960s, NASA established the requirements to become astronauts, but it was impossible for women to meet their requirements. One of these requirements was to have jet test pilot experience. All of the Mercury 13 women were accomplished pilots, but jet training was not available to most American women at the time (only Cochran had trained in jet aircraft). When asked, during the 1962 hearings before the House subcommittee, if the Air Force Academy should be opened up to admit women so that they could train in courses that might eventually lead to test pilot work and that could advance their astronautic careers, Cochran replied: “I don’t think you should open the Academy to the women. Maybe never… Don’t clutter up the Air Academy with women unless we know we want them.”

Cochran also did not think the House subcommittee should be focusing on whether there was any discrimination directed at the thirteen women, but rather on whether their inclusion might “slow down, make more expensive, or complicate” the space program that was already established. She felt “men came first” and any women’s astronaut program should not interfere with the objectives of the existing space program. She also believed that any use of women could not be based on need, as there was “no shortage of well-trained and long-experienced male pilots to serve as astronauts.”

In addition, Cochran thought the women’s astronaut testing program should start over and involve a much larger group of women, despite the fact that the Mercury 13 women were ready and willing to continue their testing immediately. Cochran did not feel the small group (13 women) was sufficient and, instead, she had “in mind the need for a large group considering the time the research will take and the natural rate of attrition among the volunteers due to marriage, childbirth, and other causes.” She stated that she felt women could successfully go into space, but she did not want “it done in a haphazard manner.”

Cochran’s testimony seems so counterintuitive considering the arguments she had used years earlier with her WASP program. With the WASPs, Cochran had stressed that women had the ability and the desire to serve their country. She emphasized during the war that females “have no more fear than men in any respect and perhaps less in relation to flying.” In 1944, she noted that one reason women had been kept out of the air was simply male claims that aviation was “a man’s field.” She had no doubt, however, that her WASPs could have flown in “combat work, fearlessly and effectively.” With the women’s astronaut candidates, however, she seemed to be presenting the opposite type of reasoning in an apparent attempt to deter any further testing of Mercury 13 women. She had created the WASPs during wartime, when there was a manpower shortage, but did she truly think that there were just too many qualified male astronauts to even consider women?

The social order of the time did put men on top, but Cochran always seemed to be the individual who challenged others about what women could accomplish. She spent so much of her life demonstrating that women could do many of the same things men did—equally well and often better—that it is hard to believe she felt women held such a secondary status when it came to space exploration. It is true that the social bias and sexism of the 1960s restricted women in many areas of life, and the stereotypes about women’s lack of scientific and technical ability abounded, but Cochran was, after all, the person who had broken so many of those stereotypes! Did she really believe that continued testing of women would complicate or interfere with the men’s space program? Previously, she had actually funded many of the expenses for the thirteen women in the testing program, so why did she change from being a supporter of the program to advocating for its delay? Considering the pioneering spirit she usually exhibited, it seems strange that Cochran now wanted women to wait their turn.

Why also did Cochran argue for a larger number of women in a future women-in-space program when there were already results showing that women were passing the same tests that men took? Did she want to start afresh with a larger number of candidates so she could be in charge of the new program? Cochran had argued that if anyone should coordinate or lead a women’s space program that it should be a noncompetitor. Did she think she should be the one to fulfill that role?

Whatever her reasoning, Cochran’s testimony before the House subcommittee effectively grounded the Mercury 13. Without her backing, the prospect of any further testing for the Mercury 13 was bleak.

Was her lack of support for the Mercury 13 women at the House hearings motivated out of selfish desires? It has been suggested that Cochran may have wanted to be the first female space pioneer, and that if she could not be first, perhaps she did not want any other woman to go either. Did she use her testimony before the subcommittee to try to delay any further testing for the female astronaut candidates because she wanted to be the first woman in space?

Whatever her reasoning, Cochran’s testimony before the House subcommittee effectively grounded the Mercury 13. She was certainly not solely responsible, because there were plenty of others, including NASA leaders and political officials, who did not support the idea of women in space. But without her backing, the prospect of any further testing for the Mercury 13 was bleak. When the hearings ended, the dream of space exploration was effectively over for the 13 American female astronaut candidates and a great opportunity was lost for America.

Of course, other women did successfully reach for the stars. In 1963, the Soviets launched the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space. Ironically, Luce noted at the time, the 13 American female astronaut candidates were all “experienced pilots with qualifications far more impressive than Valentina Tereshkova’s.” For these thirteen women and for America, an opportunity was definitely lost. It would take another 20 years before the first American woman, Sally Ride, would make it into space! Hindsight is always 20/20, but if Jacqueline Cochran’s testimony at the 1962 hearings had been supportive of continuing the testing for the Mercury 13 astronaut candidates, one wonders if this pioneering step might have occurred so much earlier.

References

Ackmann, Martha. The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight. New York: Random House, 2003.

Fernandez, Elizabeth. “Pioneer Aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran Dies at Indio Home.” Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA), August 10, 1980, County Page (Cty. Pg.)– B-4.

“Jacqueline Cochran, ‘Pilot,’ Dies; Set Over 200 Records in Aviation.” The New York Times, August 10, 1980, 40.

Luce, Clare Boothe. “But Some People Simply Never Get the Message.” Life 54, no. 26 (June 28, 1963): 31–33.

Madrigal, Alexis. “The Women Who Would Have Been Sally Ride.” The Atlantic (July 24, 2012).

Press Release. Advance – National Aviation Conference (Oklahoma City, OK). November 16, 1944. Jacqueline Cochran Papers, WASP Series, Box 14, Publicity (1). Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, 1944.

U. S. House of Representatives. Committee on Science and Astronautics. “Qualifications for Astronauts: Hearings before the Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts.” 87th Congress, 2nd Session. July 17–18, 1962. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1962.


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