WHEN THE SKY IS A GLASS CEILING

Inspiration can be found in unexpected places – like an obituary. This one was in a recent issue of “The New York Times,” about a woman I’d never heard of, but should have . Geraldyn M. Cobb reminded me of NASA’s “hidden figures,” publicized in the popular movie. She wasn’t African American like those heroines, but she was the victim of the same prejudice: NASA’ s “men only” world.

An accomplished pilot , Cobb began by flying her father’s WACO aircraft in 1936 when she was just twelve years old. At 16 she was flying solo, and by 20 had earned both private and commercial licenses. Dropping out of college after a year, she worked in the local municipal airport on pipeline patrol or flying as a crop duster. But her dream was to fly into space. Despite her impressive credentials, NASA rejected her for being the wrong gender.

She then applied for a job as a DC3 co-pilot with a Florida company and was hired sight unseen. But when she showed up, the employers , shocked that “Gerrie” wasn’t a man, refused to hire her. So she went to an aircraft maintenance shop which did hire her – as a typist and file clerk. Eventually she found work as a pilot for an international aircraft ferry service, delivering aircraft and B-17 bombers around the world. By the time she was 28 she had logged 7000 hours as a pilot.

Then in 1961 it looked as if the doors to NASA might open. One of its research scientists believed that women could be excellent astronauts. He offered to give her and 12 other women the same strenuous physical and psychological tests the Mercury 7 astronauts went through. (The women dubbed themselves the Mercury 13.) In the overall testing that was primarily men, Cobb scored in the top 2%. She seemed on the verge of becoming the first female astronaut. But the project hadn’t been officially authorized by NASA and, without explanation, was cancelled.

By the following year young women around the country were applying to be astronauts and informed that NASA had no plans to include women. They lobbied a Congressional sub-committee formed to determine whether women were able to be astronauts. Cobb told the committee, “We women pilots who want to be part of the research and participation in space exploration, aren’t trying to join a battle of the sexes. We seek only a place in our nation’s space future without dissent.”

But she was up against a national hero. John Glenn had orbited the earth, but he didn’t circle around his objections to women coming into the program. “Men fight the wars and fly the planes,” he told the Committee, adding, “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” NASA’s doors slammed shut against “females.”
(A year later the Soviet’s Valentina Tereshkova, became the first woman to fly solo into space.)

The reason Cobb’s story riveted me doesn’t have to do with space. (I’m so afraid of heights I can’t sit on my friend’s 20th floor terrace. ) No, what makes me keep thinking about Cobb isn’t what’s been termed her “tragedy,” but the way she never let disappointment be her whole story. She turned her energy in a different direction, flying numerous humanitarian missions to deliver lifesaving medical supplies and food to isolated indigenous tribes in the Amazon jungle. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for this. She set new records for speed, distance and altitude, and her solo pioneering of air routes across the hazardous Andes Mountains and Amazon rain forest eventually landed her in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

But space was still her unrealized dream. She saw her final chance in 1998 when NASA decided to test the effects of weightlessness on an aging body, sending 77- year- old Glenn back into space. Cobb, who was the same age, told the Associated Press, ““I’d give my life to fly into space.” The National Organization Of Women campaigned for Cobb, saying it was important to test the effects on an aging female body, as well. But NASA said it had “no further plans to send older people into space.” For the last time, the doors closed on Cobb.

Flash to myself and many writing colleagues, whose dream is to get a book published, but are repeatedly turned down by agents with the standard reply that our work “doesn’t fit their needs.” So what do we do when we’re surrounded by rejection? Give up? Crawl into a corner and cry, “Not fair”? If I had been Cobb in 1969 when the world learned we had landed on the moon, I might have beaten the trees in rage that I had been so unfairly denied my chance.

On that momentous July night she was alone in the Amazon when she heard on the radio that Armstrong had been the one to take that “giant step for mankind.”
What was her response?
She danced on the wings of her plane – by the light from that far away moon!

It’s a long way from astronaut to author. But like her, we can rise above rejection and proudly claim our strength. Because, no matter what the naysayers do to us, we are still writers.

WEBSITE: www.annehosansky.com
BOOKS: Widow’s Walk – available through iUniverse.com; Turning Toward Tomorrow –Xlibris.com; Ten Women of Valor and Role Play– both available through CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com; also Amazon Kindle

Comments are closed.