Jerrie Cobb was a pilot thwarted in her effort to become one of the first female astronauts, but nearly 60 years later, her story fired the imaginations of St. Paul students Aiko Mattie and Emma McCarthy.
Sexism was one of the forces at play, and Cobb's subsequent fight against discrimination at NASA would pave the way for others, inspiring Mattie and McCarthy — 10th-graders at Open World Learning Community (OWL) on the city's West Side — to create a website, "Jerrie Cobb: The Fight to Send Women to Space," to recognize her accomplishments.
On Thursday, the students and their work were honored in surprise fashion with the $7,500 grand prize in the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes' 2018 Discovery Award competition. The event came complete with a brief power outage to ratchet up the tension.
Norm Conard, the center's executive director, appeared before an auditorium crowd of about 70 students to speak generally about the center in Fort Scott, Kan., and about the projects it receives from students to bring light to heroes more people should know about. Noting that some OWL students submitted entries, he then went down a list of winners.
Mattie and McCarthy, sitting together in the second row, hadn't thought it possible they might be winners. But as Conard ran through the awards from third place to second to first, McCarthy's mind began to race.
"There weren't a lot of coherent thoughts going there," she said later.
The two received their check and stood for photos as several classmates came forward with hugs and congratulations.
Conard commended the two for telling Jerrie Cobb's story with what he described as "great detail and nuance." Their multimedia presentation — available at www.LowellMilkenCenter.org. — includes newspaper clips and a phone interview by the students with Gene Nora Jessen, who had trained with Cobb and also was denied the chance to be an astronaut.
Cobb and Jessen were among 13 female pilots who vied to enter the space program and went so far as to take the same tests — sensory deprivation, electric shock and the like — that the fabled Mercury 7 astronauts had to endure.
Their quest ended, however, when NASA refused to support a request related to what was to be their final test: piloting a jet.
In 1962, Cobb went to Congress to make the case for female astronauts. But John Glenn testified, too, saying: "It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."
Mattie of the West Side and McCarthy of Highland Park have teamed up on History Day projects since seventh grade. The two plan to use their winnings in college. Until then, they have three more History Days to go.