October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

Later this month, when space pioneer John Glenn, 77, is scheduled to board a space shuttle and return to orbit after an earthbound hiatus of 36 years, pilot Jerrie Cobb plans to be watching from the perimeter of NASA’s Cape Canaveral. As she gazes into the Florida sky, Cobb, 67, will ponder a question she has asked herself countless times: What would it be like to be in Glenn’s seat?

Cobb once came tantalizingly close to finding out. Back in the early ’60s, she was among 13 female flyers picked to undergo privately funded tests conducted by a NASA-affiliated doctor to determine whether women had the right stuff to join the nation’s space program.

Cobb was a front-runner in the test group, whom newspapers dubbed potential “astronettes.” But her dreams of streaking beyond the sky were dashed in the summer of 1962 when expert witnesses (including Glenn) urged Congress not to send the women into space, since none had served, as the male astronauts had, as military test pilots. “After that,” says Cobb, noting that the U.S. had no female military test pilots at the time, “we didn’t have a chance.”

That is, until now. Cobb, who has worked for the past 35 years as a missionary pilot in the South American jungle, returned to Washington, D.C., recently to push her new quest to become the oldest woman in space. “You can’t give up a dream that you feel is really your destiny,” she says.

Doubters beware: Jerrie Cobb has spent her life breaking barriers. Born in Norman, Okla., during the depths of the Depression, she and her family wandered from one base to another while the father she adored, the late William Cobb, served in the Army. A childhood lisp made Jerrie (short for Geraldyn) self-conscious at school, but by first grade she had discovered horseback riding, which made her feel free. “There were no fences,” she recalls of the scrubby flatland near her home at the time, in Abilene, Texas, “and you could just race and run as fast as you wanted.”

For six years, riding bareback was Cobb’s passion, until her father learned to fly the Waco bi-wing open-cockpit plane he bought while trying to become an Army Air Corps flyer. William never won his wings, but his 12-year-old daughter was captivated by her first 90-minute flight. “After that, horses didn’t stand a chance,” she says. Jerrie spent her free time that summer waiting in a cornfield outside Wichita Falls, Texas, for her father to show up after work. “I’d make sure the plane was all gassed and oiled and waxed,” she says, “so when he got there we wouldn’t waste time on the ground.”

Cobb earned her civilian pilot’s license on her 16th birthday and was cleared to fly commercial aircraft two years later. Yet, except for an early gig dropping publicity flyers for a circus, she found that a woman pilot couldn’t get work. She once drove 1,400 miles in her Pontiac to apply for a pilot’s position with a Miami-based airline but was told to apply down the hall as a stewardess. Finally, in 1952, she was hired by former Air Force pilot Jack Ford, who had a government contract to fly surplus military aircraft to U.S. allies overseas. “Ford wasn’t looking for women,” says Cobb, “but he was hard up for pilots, so he hired me.”

He also fell in love. Ford and Cobb were rarely together—”He’d be off somewhere, and I’d be on the other side of the world,” she says—but they were kindred spirits. After a romantic trip to Jamaica in 1953, he proposed and she accepted. But their engagement ended in tragedy two years later when Ford’s plane caught fire and exploded after taking off from Honolulu. He died instantly.

Heartbroken, Cobb returned to the Southwest to be near her family, then struck a deal with an Oklahoma City aircraft manufacturer that hired her as a test pilot. Within four years the soft-spoken aviatrix had broken four world records for altitude, distance and speed.

She had also attracted the attention of W. Randolph Lovelace, then chairman of NASA’s Mercury-project life sciences committee. In 1959 he invited Cobb to his Albuquerque lab to undergo the same physical tests used to pick the first generation of astronauts. Cobb passed with flying colors and was asked by Lovelace to recruit a dozen other potential women astronauts. When the tests were called off in 1962, Cobb flew to Washington to plead her case with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Congress—but she couldn’t change the prevailing opinion that a woman’s place was not in a space capsule.

Rebuffed, Cobb eventually made her way to Colombia, where she offered her services as a bush pilot to a Catholic bishop in the Amazon, ferrying supplies to the region’s indigenous people and living in their palm-thatched communal huts. Cobb was flying over the Amazon one night in 1969 when she learned over her radio that Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. She later celebrated by dancing on the plane’s wing in the moonlight. (“I wanted to share this great news with [some villagers],” she wrote in her 1997 autobiography Solo Pilot. “But they weren’t very impressed. They said one of their shamans used to fly to the moon all the time.”)

After Glenn, an old friend, announced plans to orbit the earth again, Cobb decided to come back to the U.S. She had learned that Donald Dorough, an instructor at Fresno Pacific University in California, had mounted a letter-writing campaign to get her aboard a future space mission—an effort that seems to be gaining momentum. On Sept. 26, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin told U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a Cobb booster, that if Glenn’s mission produces useful data on aging, there is a possibility NASA will send up another senior citizen. According to Inhofe, NASA’s Goldin said that “there is no one in America who is more qualified and deserving to be in that space shuttle than Jerrie Cobb.”

Cobb couldn’t agree more. “I’d love to be on my way to Houston to train,” she says. And if that day ever arrives, she will be one step closer to realizing the ambition that has sustained her for years. “This means everything to her,” says Cobb’s sister Carolyn Warren Lawrence, 70. “This is her lifelong dream.”

Patrick Rogers

Fannie Weinstein in Bartlesville, Okla., and Margie Sellinger in Washington, D.C.

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