Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight
© 2020 Amy Shira Teitel
When the age of flight arrived, women were as eager to take to the skies as men. Fighting for Space is a joint biography of two women, pioneers from different generations, who created extraordinary lives for themselves in the air, and then – as rockets began rising above airplanes – wondered if they might not be able to push the envelope further, and help put women in space. Amy Shira Teitel (host of the uber-cool and always interesting space history channel, Vintage Space) here introduces readers to Jackie Cochrane, an entrepreneur who flew with Amalia Earhart and Chuck Yeager; and Jerrie Cobb, who arranged to have herself subjected to the same battery of tests as the Mercury 7, leading the way for another twelve women to do the same – funded by Cochrane. It’s an expanding story of early aviation, growing opportunities for women in World War 2, and the determination of two women to surpass the expectations of their sex and beat the Russians to sending a woman into space. The subjects are admirable, their combined story compelling – but where Teitel really triumphs is creating a history that tells of their struggle without reducing it to a predictable propaganda piece. Instead, our two heroines have flaws, and even actively resent the other – and the men who ultimately frustrate their ambitions, LBJ and Jim Webb, are presented not as villains but as men beset with responsibilities, working to fulfill them with the limited resources at hand as best they could.
Although both of the subjects of this book are remarkable, if I had to choose one over the other, it would have to be Jackie Cochrane. Growing up in poverty, forced to drop out of school and join the workforce before she was a proper teenager, let alone an adult, Cochrane kept her eyes open for opportunities and created a successful salon business for herself. From an early age, she had a forceful self-confidence and was unafraid to confront those who tried to take advantage of her, and business would only get better after she attracted the attention of a business tycoon, who encouraged her to pursue flying to help her grow her market. Flying became more of a joy and a challenge in itself, and she pushed herself to become not only good, but The Best — racing in airshows at a time when flying was far more dangerous than it is now, even when pilots weren’t trying to cross the country as quickly as possible under adverse conditions. Jackie’s prominence as an aviator and interest in creating an American version of the Air Transport Auxiliary (a program in England in which female pilots were used to transport planes from base to base, freeing up men for combat) made her an instrumental part of creating and directing what became the Womens Airforce Service Pilots program, better known as WASPS. After the war, she continued pushing herself as an aviator, enlisting her friend Chuck Yeager’s help to train her to fly the new jet aircraft becoming more popular. Meanwhile, a young Jerrie Cobb fell in love with flying as a teenager, and beat bushes looking for opportunities to work with planes for a living — a hard ask in the postwar years, as the market was glutted with cashiered airmen looking for jobs that could get them back in the air. When the International Geophysical Year and Sputnik propelled the United States toward creating a manned rocket program, Cobb was aggressively interested in seeing if women couldn’t make the cut, either. As it happened, the Lovelace lab was interested in the data generated from women taking the same tests as men: even if NASA wasn’t currently looking for female astronauts, it presumably would eventually. Cobb’s relentless promotion of inclusion for female pilots saw her named (by LBJ, who had made the space program his baby) as a consultant to NASA. With funding from Cochrane, other women were invited t to take the same panel of physical and psychological tests as Glenn, Grissom, and the rest of the Mercury men — though NASA was under such stress at the time to catch up and surpass the Russians that it wanted to focus on astronauts of known quantities, hence the Mercury pioneers being drawn exclusively from test pilots. After the biggest incentive for sending a woman into space — being the first to do it — was removed courtesy of Russia sending up Valentina Tereshkova — Cobb and Cochrane realized that women in space was a lost cause for now, and Cobb switched her flying zeal to doing missionary work. The United States wouldn’t send a woman into space until 1983, when Sally Ride was named to an early space shuttle mission: a year later, Kathryn Sullivan became the first woman to do a spacewalk.
Fighting for Space was the most fun I’ve had reading history in a while: admittedly, early aviation and the Mercury-Apollo era are two of those subjects I can’t read enough about, but Teitel’s research and professionalism made the book a must-recommend. The women are not made inviolate icons despite their dogged triumphs, and the men are not demonized: instead, we get a full, even history that doubles as a great story.
Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied the Odds and Made Aviation History, Keith O’Brien
Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars, Eileen Collins. Collins was an early military pilot who was barred from combat missions, but used her experience flying cargo planes to good effect in the Shuttle program. She was the first female commander of an STS mission, and many of the women that Jerrie Cobb led to be tested as prospective astronauts were there to witness her launch.
Rise of the Rocket Girls. Nathalia Holt. This title focuses on NASA’s ‘computers’, women doing the rocketry calculations that allowed the space program to develop from seized German rockets.
The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the WASPS, Katherine Landeck. Cochrane has a HUGE listing in the index, as you might imagine. On my to-read list.
The Hurricane Girls, Jo Wheeler. The history of Britain’s ATA program, the inspiration for the WASPS. On my “probably to read” list. The reviews indicate it has a lot of technical errors. Cyberkitten reviewed it here.
Thanks for the cite. Wheeler wasn’t a historian and it did show. I have another book on that subject which might be better. Plus I have several about Russian women fliers as well as other female Russian soldiers in WW2.
Ooh! Will look forward to the Russian lasses. There’s a group (Beloe Zlato) on youtube that does Russian folk music. They’re very charming, between the folk music, the long hair, and the dresses. 😉
I’ll see if I can schedule them in soon(ish)… Happy to provide a list if you wish.