Jerrie Cobb reached down and pulled the heavy layers of arctic clothing over her navy blue linen dress. Already the temperature on the airport tarmac that afternoon in June 1957 was a steamy ninety degrees. The shy, soft-spoken young pilot did not mind the heat nearly as much as she minded the reporters who crowded around her. She disliked all the attention and being forced to answer questions such as why she needed warm clothing for her attempt at a new altitude record. Cobb had trouble putting her thoughts into words and knew reporters found her not as quotable as they would like. The questions were predictable. "Are you frightened, Miss Cobb, about trying to break the world record?" "How cold will it get up there?" "Why does a pretty young girl like you want to spend her time around the dirt and grime and noise of airplanes?" "What about boyfriends? Are you more afraid of dating than flying six miles up?" Cobb paused before answering and patiently tried to explain why flying was more important than anything else in her life. It was always difficult for her to describe how content she felt when she was alone in an airplane. She realized her words sounded flat and could never express the genuine passion she felt for flying. It was easier to keep her personal feelings hidden and focus instead on what she wanted to accomplish that day. Her goal, Cobb told the reporters, was to the break the current world altitude record for lightweight aircraft. Since Oklahoma was celebrating its Semi-Centennial, she wanted to use her skills as a pilot to set world records for the Sooner State. Aero Design and Engineering, an Oklahoma City-based aviation company, had been eager to sponsor Cobb and lend her its new twin-engine airplane for the record-breaking flight. It was good publicity, especially after Cobb used one of their planes to break the world record for nonstop long-distance flying-from Guatemala City to Oklahoma City-just five weeks earlier. Today Cobb would push the Aero Commander beyond the highest altitude it had ever achieved. It was a risky proposition. Test pilots had flown the plane to 27,000 feet. Cobb was hoping for 30,000. Her parents just hoped that she could avoid a fatal stall.
Cobb excused herself from the clutch of reporters to concentrate on her final checklist. She had been up since daylight to smoke the barograph drums. Taking a stick of camphor, Cobb had held it near the barograph, coating the surface with dusky smoke. The sharp point of a stylus would scratch through the soot to register her precise altitude. To prepare her lungs for the thin air of the upper atmosphere and wash out nitrogen in her system, she breathed 100 percent oxygen for two hours before the flight. She walked around the aircraft, examining the plane's hinges, vertical stabilizer, and rudder, and got down on her knees to check the tire pressure. She lowered the plastic fuel sampler and studied the color of the fuel, checked it for sediment, and smelled its sharp, pungent odor. Standing nearby, Cobb watched as officials from the National Aeronautic Association certified the official scales and confirmed the Commander's weight class. Cobb kept any concerns about the dangers of high-altitude flying to herself. She knew that at several miles up and at high accelerations, a pilot could faint, breathing became difficult, and vision was impaired. She had been told about the terrifying slump toward unconsciousness: first color would disappear from one's vision, turning everything gray, then sight would shrink to a narrow tunnel, and, finally, all would go dark. Cobb knew she would be needing oxygen bottles in the unpressurized cockpit above 12,500 feet in order to maintain consciousness. She also knew that-as absurd as it seemed-she had to worry about her appearance as well. Unspoken social customs for women pilots dictated that she wear a dress and high heels under her protective clothing. Everyone expected women pilots to look like fashion models when they stepped out of a cockpit, even if they had been up all night working on engines with their arms covered in grease. When she realized she had forgotten a mirror and would need one for retouching her makeup before she landed, Cobb accepted a small compact from a bystander. Then she climbed into the cockpit and, alone at last, kicked off her high heels.
Cruising to normal altitude, Cobb looked below to the flat Oklahoma prairie and at the sky all around her. She always thought the sky looked bluer when she was actually in it than it did from the ground. She pitied people who spent their entire lives earthbound. They were missing quite a show, she thought. As the Aero Commander rose to 27,000 feet, Cobb could feel the strain on the aircraft and her own body. Every hundred feet meant that both the plane's engine and her breathing were more labored. Cobb breathed from an oxygen bottle and lifted the Commander's nose upward. One more foot, two more feet, she seemed to tell the plane, keeping her eye on the altimeter's needle. The higher she flew, the colder it became in the cockpit. At thirty degrees below zero, the windshield slicked over with ice and the instruments inside became frosted. Flying as much by touch and instinct as by instrument, Cobb continued to push upward almost inch by inch. That was when the beeping started. The stall indicator triggered its alarm. The closer together the beeps were, the nearer Cobb was to a stall. She could either lower the nose to avoid a shutdown, or keep listening to the interval between beeps and praying she had time to climb a few more feet for the world record. Cobb eased the plane upward as images of disaster crowded her mind. If the engine stalled, the Commander would plummet in an unrecoverable spin, faster and faster, wings and tail shearing off in a fatal dive to the ground. Cobb listened to the beeps. Was there just enough time between them to raise the nose once more? Could she gain the remaining altitude for the record? Cobb adjusted the fuel flows and pulled upward. She looked at the altimeter, bouncing higher and higher, 28,000 feet, 29,000 feet, 30,000 feet. At 30,330 feet, the Commander started to shudder, but Cobb almost smiled. She had clinched the world record.
As Cobb guided the plane down, warmer air began to melt the icy windows, and she breathed more easily, as much from relief as from altitude. Floating down from the clouds, she saw the crowd waiting for her at the airport below. Now comes the hard part, she thought. World record behind her, it was time to smooth her blond ponytail, put on lipstick, squeeze her feet into high heels, and start talking.
Although talking did not come easily to Jerrie Cobb, the press attention greeting her at the airport should have felt routine by now. At twenty-six, she had been making headlines for years. She was the only woman in the United States to have ferried military surplus aircraft to countries in South America, Europe, and Asia. She could tell dramatic stories of flying solo over the jagged Andes, hopping a ride on banana boats after emergency landings, and sleeping in less-than-hospitable surroundings with her pistol nearby. An air-race competitor in women's cross-country and international derbies and now a world record holder, Cobb was reaching the goals that every top-flight pilot, man or woman, wanted to attain. More than anything, a great pilot wanted to go "higher, faster, and farther"-the four words were considered a champion's credo. Some people joked that Cobb, with her two new world records, was becoming the country's best Cold War weapon. When she entered the record books the previous month by breaking the nonstop long-distance mark, people in Oklahoma City pointed out that a local girl in a local plane beat a world record held by a male Russian pilot flying a Soviet Yak II aircraft. Jerrie Cobb seemed to be single-handedly winning aviation contests against the Rus-sians-"Sooner-Soviet air competitions" one newspaper reporter called them.
Cobb had gone both higher and farther and had the world records to prove it. There was one record left to complete her aviation hat trick-the world record for speed. Setting off before a cheering crowd of 7,500 at the Las Vegas World Congress of Flight in 1959, Cobb raced the clock over Reno, San Francisco, and San Diego and back to Las Vegas in another twin-engine Aero Commander. Representatives from the National Aeronautic Associa-tion and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale of Paris, the official authority on aviation world records, timed her flight and took two sealed boxes from her plane after she landed for shipment to the U.S. Bureau of Standards for speed verification. When the results came back, Cobb had secured a third world record, surpassing another male Russian pilot as the holder of the light plane speed record.
Cobb had already been named 1959 "Woman of the Year in Aviation" by the Women's National Aeronautical Association and "Pilot of the Year" by the National Pilots Association. When she came home after her third world record, the chief of flight operations at Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base said that Jerrie Cobb's records beating the Russians ranked in importance to military victories. The Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce president agreed. "Miss Cobb," he said, "seems to be taking records away from the Russians. Maybe she could help President Eisenhower."
Escalating Cold War hostilities and Dwight Eisenhower's apparent nonchalance about Soviet achievement in space were very much on the mind of the American public. Just months after Cobb set the altitude record, the unearthly beep of Russia's first satellite, Sputnik, shocked a sleepy nation, shook it awake, and forever linked the military objectives of the Cold War with space exploration. Within hours after its launch, the satellite's beep was picked up by shortwave radio operators and recorded for broadcast over television and radio stations in the United States. Listeners found the sound, so far away from Earth, both thrilling and terrifying. If Communists were moving into outer space, they could dominate the rest of the world as well. It seemed as though President Eisenhower was the only American who did not initially understand the military, scientific, or cultural significance of Sputnik's chirp.* "The Russians have only put one small ball in the air," he said. Others disagreed. The Democratic governor of Michigan, G. Mennan Williams, went so far as to compose a poem to Eisenhower's golf-playing detachment:
Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it's a Commie sky
And Uncle Sam's asleep.
You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.
Sputnik's launch prompted the United States to reevaluate its presumed world superiority in education, industry, and defense. Teachers reexamined what U.S. schoolchildren were learning and were appalled to discover how far behind the nation's students were in mathematics and science. American scientists studied the gap between Soviet and U.S. technological achievements and were equally frustrated to find their accomplishments lagging. Record-setting pilots such as Jerrie Cobb realized that "higher, faster, and farther" now meant something totally different since a satellite had been launched. Flying in outer space became the new frontier for top-flight pilots. But beating the Russians in spaceships was nothing like beating them in airplanes. Cobb realized that an individual pilot's determination and skill were not enough to outpace the Soviets in space. That competition would take a national effort, millions of dollars, thousands of hands, and one sophisticated spacecraft.
Even President Eisenhower had to agree that the United States was in second place in space. In an effort to address the national concern, he signed into law in 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy had all jockeyed for control of the space agency, Eisenhower decided NASA would be under civilian rather than military control and gave the new federal agency a broad mandate to challenge the Soviets in aerospace superiority. With a high-profile charge, the young federal space agency faced myriad challenges, including fundamental questions about what its top priority should be. Scientists within the organization argued that NASA should emphasize the acquisition of scientific and technical knowledge. Spaceflight, they said, should not be focused on meaningless races in which finishing first was the only goal. It did not matter to them if the United States launched the first satellite or even the first living creature-man, woman, dog, or chimpanzee. Such competitions were better suited for athletic fields and obscured the more important scientific objectives of spaceflight. Others, however, both within and outside NASA, saw space exploration as connected to larger national and even international objectives. Successfully launching a spacecraft vividly demonstrated a country's accomplishment and brought it worldwide prestige. Space launches were dramatic, captivating the public's attention with their suspense and spectacle. Thunderous noise, bright fists of flame, sleek rockets rising higher and higher into the sky-the images were tailor-made for the new medium of television. Viewers felt a personal connection and a sense of national pride when rockets lifted off from what seemed like their very living rooms.
Indeed, for the general public, the idea of beating the Russians by launching a man into space seized their attention in ways that sending up an unmanned missile for scientific purposes did not. But who would be that first man in space? Eisenhower initially believed that astronauts should come from a variety of professions-arctic explorers, mountain climbers, meteorologists, flight surgeons, deep-sea divers. People with a wide range of abilities and perspectives would enhance space exploration, he thought. But the President changed his mind. In late 1958 he decided that NASA should narrow the field and choose astronauts from the ranks of military jet test pilots, a field that barred women and included few minority men. The shift in Eisenhower's thinking reflected the urgency he felt for launching a U.S. manned space program before the Soviets had a chance. His decision also was informed by his experience, respect for military protocol, and the advice of NASA officials. Dr. T. Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator, argued that his own years in the service had convinced him that military jet test pilots would make the best astronaut candidates. Men who flew for the military were already admired for their skill, experience, and courage, he said. Why open up the selection process to anyone else when it would be more efficient to survey a smaller, recognizable group instead? Glennan presented his case to the President and "got it cleared in five minutes," he later recalled.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann. Copyright © 2003 by Martha Ackmann. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.