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How pioneering pilot Jackie Cochran helped and hurt the Women in Space Program

Jacqueline Cochran standing outside of a P-40 Warhawk Fighter Plane
This article is part of Apollo: A Lunar Legacy, a multipart series that explores the technological advances behind Apollo 11, their influence on the modern day, and what’s next for the moon.

On May 18, 1953, Jacqueline Cochran, flying at an average speed of 652 miles an hour, became the first woman to break the sound barrier. It was another “first” to add to her long list of accomplishments. The pioneering pilot broke a number of flight speed, altitude, and distance records starting in the 1930s.

One of her greatest regrets was not being able to go to space. Though in her 50s by the time Valentina Tereshkova became the first female cosmonaut, Cochran had already played a role in attempting to recruit women astronauts.

There will be blood, but a lady never sweats

Cochran was a force of nature. Pilot Chuck Yeager called her “a damned Sherman tank at full steam,” adding that “she was tough and bossy and used to getting her own way.” When she ran for Congress in California in 1956, a newspaper had to use a lot of hyphens to encompass her résumé: “Glamorous millionaire-aviatrix-cold cream manufacturer.”

Jackie Cochran with her record-setting Beech D17W “Staggerwing” in 1936. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cochran painted herself as Cinderella, an orphan who worked in a cotton mill by age 8 and a beauty parlor at 13. (In a 2001 book, Cochran’s niece said the Pittmans, whom the pilot called her foster family, were actually her parents.) By 1936, when she married millionaire Floyd Oldum, she had a long list of wealthy clients and was part-owner in several salons. She credited her husband with suggesting she take flying lessons, so she could get to her appointments and different businesses more quickly.

In 1935, Cochran and her friend Amelia Earhart had to petition the male pilots for waivers to let them compete for the Bendix Trophy, a transcontinental aeronautical race. Cochran ended up having to drop out due to engine troubles, but she won three years later — though not before two others, Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes, became the first women to win the trophy.

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As planes improved, pilots could fly faster and higher. But some aspects of high-altitude flight remained troubling. When Cochran achieved an altitude record in 1937, she climbed to 33,000 feet in a fabric-covered biplane. It was cold and not pressurized, forcing Cochran to suck in supplemental oxygen through the stem of a pipe.

Despite the extra air, she became disoriented and ruptured a blood vessel in her nose. Hoping to push more boundaries and fly higher, Cochran became interested in aviation medicine.

At that time, William Randolph Lovelace II was working with other physicians to create breathing masks for air travel. Both pilots and passengers needed to be alert if commercial flights were going to improve. Cochran met and became friends with Lovelace, and helped with some of his pressurization tests. She took mice and chickens up in her plane, with sometimes horrible results. “The poor buggers would just explode,” she wrote in her autobiography.

Cochran takes command

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Cochran wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, suggesting the 650 women who were licensed pilots in the U.S, could help if needed. “Most of them would be of little use today, but most of them could be of great use a few months hence if properly trained and organized,” she wrote.

Jacqueline Jackie Cochran looking at a model airplane
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cochran spent some time in 1941 in Britain after becoming the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. “Miss Cochran remained definitely feminine in this war in which women are playing many important parts,” a New York Times reporter wrote. Cochran asked not to be photographed in her wrinkled pants and jacket. “I may fly bombers, but I’m still feminine,” she said.

Reporters often called her pretty or glamorous, remarking on her blond hair and couture. Cochran played into it, dabbing on lipstick while still in the cockpit. As the head of Jacqueline Cochran cosmetics, it was good for business. She said the toll flying took on her skin prompted her to make a new moisturizer, Flowing Velvet. “I would putter in the lab trying to refine a product,” she said. The result was perfect for combating “merciless dehydration,” according to the ads.

Despite the dangers involved, these women were civilians and received no pension or benefits.

In 1942, Cochran returned to Britain with some American pilots, all of them women, to help ferry planes from place to place. Before she left, she wrote to Gen. Henry Arnold, concerned that another general, Robert Olds, was “planning on hiring women pilots for this Ferrying Command almost at once.” She worried that if the program started while she was out of the country, “it would wash me out of the supervision of the women flyers here rather than the contrary as we contemplated.” Arnold wrote to Olds and told him to delay hiring any women as pilots until Cochran returned.

But just as Cochran was getting back to the U.S. in September 1942, she found Nancy Harkness Love, a veteran pilot, heading the new Women’s Air Force Ferry Service (WAF). The program wasn’t exactly what Cochran had in mind. Love wanted a small, well-trained group of women pilots to ferry planes. Cochran’s vision was larger, with hundreds of women doing different types of missions — though not fighting. “Women, being geared higher emotionally than men, are not fitted for the strength required and the sustained strain involved for air fighting,” she said.

Captain Jacqueline Cochrane (center) talks informally to a group of trainees at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, in 1943. Cochran’s group consisted of female U.S.ferry pilots who would ferry warplanes from factories and U.S. bases to the front. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cochran complained to Arnold: “The top job is what you told me I would do and is the one I have been preparing to do the past year.” Quickly, she was put in charge of a new training program, the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). In addition to ferrying duties — bringing aircraft from factories to bases — she wanted some women trained to tow artillery targets.

Within a year, the WAF and WFTD programs merged into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. Despite the dangers involved, these women were civilians and received no pension or benefits. Thirty-eight WASPs died during training or missions. In 1944, a bill was introduced to militarize the WASPs, but it didn’t pass and the program was canceled.

Many of the WASPs were bitterly disappointed. Meanwhile, Cochran turned her attention to jets after the war. She rented one from Canada, and Yeager taught her to fly one. She later broke the sound barrier.

A desire to be the first

Still friendly with Lovelace, Cochran heard about a program he was involved in a few years later. In 1959, a couple of organizations were researching how women might perform as astronauts. Betty Skelton went through astronaut exercises at NASA, as part of a Look magazine article; Ruth Nicols was put through tests for the Air Force; and Jerrie Cobb went through the same battery of tests as the Mercury men at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Jacqueline Cochran stands in the cockpit of a F-104 Starfighter jet
Jacqueline Cochran stands in the cockpit of a F-104 Starfighter jet after becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier. Schenectady Museum

Cobb completed the three phases of tests in 1960. Some researchers thought sending a woman to space made sense. They were, on average, smaller and lighter, and needed less food, water, and oxygen. Lovelace had designed the tests for the Mercury Seven, and he wanted to see how women would fare.

When Lovelace announced the results later that year, he said, “We are already in a position to say that certain qualities of the female space pilot are preferable to those of her male colleague.” Time called her “the first astronautrix” before giving her measurements and revealing that she ate hamburgers for breakfast. (Newspapers and magazines would also test out “astronauttes,” “feminauts,” and other feminizations of “astronaut.”)

Jackie Cochran was used to being the first, the only. In late 1960, Lovelace was putting together his Women in Space Program, planning on bringing in more women pilots to test. He invited Cochran to join as a consultant. She came on board in November and immediately recommended changes to the requirements. The women could be a little older or younger than the cutoff ages. And why not accept married women? she suggested.

“No nation has yet sent a human female into space. We offer you 13 woman pilot volunteers.”

Cochran and her husband, Oldum, provided almost $18,000 worth of stocks to help fund Lovelace’s program. It’s possible she was still hoping to be first. Cochran, who was in her mid-50s, went through the same Mercury tests as 19 other women. They had physical exams, eye tests, and EEGs. Icy water was squirted into their ears to induce vertigo. They were put in confined spaces and sensory deprivation tanks.

When Lovelace told Cochran that she didn’t pass because of an unknown heart problem, another pilot, Sarah Gorelick Ratley, later said she could hear raised voices through the closed door. Thirteen women, including Ratley, did pass the first two phases of the tests. They’d later be nicknamed the Mercury 13.

Members of the Mercury 13 in 1995 (from left to right): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. They were among the 13 women determined to be fit enough to be astronauts in the early 1960s but were ultimately never allowed to join the space program. NASA

In order to complete the third phase, these women would need to travel to the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida. There would be two weeks of fitness tests and space simulation training. The women stepped up their exercise routines. Some quit their jobs. Magazines like McCall’s ran articles about the pilots. Then, in September 1961, the trip was canceled.

A subcommittee on space

Lovelace’s Women in Space Program was a private project, with a good chunk of the funding coming from Cochran. NASA wasn’t involved, so when the navy inquired with the space agency about whether it had requested the women’s Pensacola tests, the answer was no. That lack of a request allowed the navy to rescind its agreement to let the women spend two weeks at its facilities.

The Pensacola trip was pulled only a few months after President John F. Kennedy told Congress the U.S. would attempt to go to the moon within a decade. Studying women’s fitness for such space travel didn’t seem to be a priority for NASA.

Cobb wasn’t ready to quit. She met with members of the House Space Committee, which convened a subcommittee on women’s potential place in the space program. Both Cobb and Jane Briggs Hart, another member of the Women in Space Program, testified at a hearing in July 1962.

“Anyone who’s spent as much time in the air as I have in the last 34 years is bound to yearn to go a little bit farther.”

“We ask as citizens of this nation to be allowed to participate with seriousness and sincerity in the making of history now, as women have in the past,” Cobb said in her opening statement, and added later: “No nation has yet sent a human female into space. We offer you 13 woman pilot volunteers.”

Hart, whose husband was a senator, said sidelining women from the space effort was the same attitude that kept them out of field hospitals 100 years earlier. “I wonder if anyone has ever reflected on the great waste of talent resulting from the belated recognition of women’s ability to heal,” she said. It no longer made sense to wait for a manpower shortage to harness women’s talents, she said.

National Archives and Records Administration

When it was her turn, Cochran doused any hope that she would support getting the 13 women to Pensacola. Instead, Cochran suggested a new program, starting with many more women and more testing. It would take longer but the results would be better, she said. “I would rather see us program intelligently and with assurance, and with surety, than to rush into something because we want to get there first, whether the moon or a satellite,” she said when asked about getting a woman in space before the Soviet Union.

Cochran also suggested such a program might lose women to marriage and that having babies would put them out of commission for a year. Regardless, she still thought the research should be done, to show whether or not women were a good fit for space.

Over the next five years, Cochran would contact Lovelace about restarting the Women in Space Program and try to get her large-scale research project with NASA off the ground. Nothing came of any of her attempts.

While Cochran clearly wanted women in space, at some point, she also wanted to be the one to do it. “I really would like to be the first woman in space,” she once said. “Anyone who’s spent as much time in the air as I have in the last 34 years is bound to yearn to go a little bit farther.”

Jackie Cochran in 1962 when she received the Harmon Trophy for establishing eight World Class records in jet planes. Smithsonian Institution Archives

For her entire career, Cochran was the “pretty aviatrix,” loving both the machines and the makeup. For her, it was more of a “kick” to beat 10 men than it would’ve been to beat 10 women. While she swore she’d never been discriminated against — “I think the women complaining they’ve been discriminated against are the ones who can’t do anything anyway.” —  she once told Chuck Yeager that if she were a man during the war, “All these generals would be pounding on my door instead of the other way around.”

Despite all her awards, accolades, and records, perhaps Cochran never wanted anyone to shine quite as brightly as she did. According to her goddaughter — Lovelace’s daughter, Jacqueline Lovelace Johnson — “Jackie was a champion of Jackie.”

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