NORMAN — For many, reaching for the stars is simply metaphorical. For Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb it was a realistic goal. Until, that is, it was all ripped away from her.
Showcasing Laurel Ollstein’s original script “They Promised Her the Moon,” University of Oklahoma Drama will narate Cobb’s unknown story in an upcoming world premiere.
Cobb’s life as an Oklahoma pilot serves as the framework for Ollstein’s tale chronicling the 1959-1962 failed attempts to earn women spots in NASA’s astronaut training program.
“I read a magazine article a few years back about NASA halting the Women in Space Program. It is unbelievable to me that no one really knows this story — even feminists and scientists don’t know this story,” she said. “I began to write a short story from this article because I wondered what would a person do if they worked for something so hard and had just got to the point of succeeding and the program was canceled. What would you do?”
Ollstein continued that she “googled ‘first female astronaut’ and what popped up was a page on Jerrie. I just continued my research and slowly unpacked, unpacked and unpacked the larger story. It is an unbelievable story that no one really knows.”
Cobb was born in Norman to OU alumni Harvey and Helena (Stone) Cobb in 1931 and grew up in Oklahoma City. Following in her father’s footsteps, she took her first flight at age 12 and began soloing on her 16th birthday. Cobb earned her commercial license on her 18th birthday and was hired by Jack Ford to ferry planes to South America, Asia and Europe. She set the world speed record in 1959 and was named Aviation’s “Women of the Year”.
Sponsored by the Lovelace Foundation for Medication Education and Research, Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II and Brig. General Donald Flickinger recruited Cobb to participate in the privately funded Women in Space Program study.
The study put women through the same physiological screening tests as the original Mercury Seven male astronauts. She became the first woman to pass all tests in 1960. Thirteen award winning female pilots passed the same physical examinations and are now known as Mercury 13. The program was irrevocably halted when NASA refused to allow the Navy to use their facilities for additional testing in September 1961.
“Here are 13 women who were all record holding pilots and simply were being stopped from continuing their work,” Ollstein said. “It is just so shocking when you think about it.”
Cobb and fellow pilot Jane Hart wrote to President John Kennedy to intervene and order NASA to offer space for the testing. Cobb visited with then Vice President Lyndon Johnson in March 1962. He ordered a special public hearing by the subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics be convened for further inquiry.
When asked why she chose Cobb’s story over all the women involved in the Loveless Women in Space testing program Ollstein replied with a sense of regret: “I had to choose. Jerrie’s life arc in fascinating. And even then, I had to choose which stories from Jerri’s life to tell.”
Now 80-years-olds, Cobb lives in South America where she continues into her fourth decade of personally flying humanitarian supply drops to Amazon natives. Ollstein tried to contact Jerrie via her foundation website (www.jerrie-cobb.org) and initially received responses from Jerrie’s alleged co-pilot. Hoping to add Cobb’s own reflections along with accounts from her two autobiographies, Ollstein finally asked about the possibility for a meeting. Communication stopped.
“The play goes as far as we know about Jerrie. She never married and had no known heirs. There is a love interest within the play, but Jerrie’s love was and still is flying.”
Ollstein elaborated that Cobb may have suffered from a speech impediment that kept her rather quiet in her younger days and being an only child simply grew up use to being alone. Personal information about Cobb’s character helped Ollstein not only understand why the communication abruptly stopped, but also solidified the setting for the play’s opening.
“It begins in an isolation tank. This is a test all astronauts took and one that Jerri excelled in – even above men. She stayed in the tank for 9 hours, 40 minutes, while most men were only at 3 hours before they started hallucinating.”
Director and OU drama professor Judith Pender says the isolation tank is where all of the play’s action stems.
“This is not a story where you sit down and let me tell you “Once Upon a Time…,” Pender emphasized. “It is not chronological the way action happens.”
Pender elaborated that to assist her cast with understanding the arc of their own individual characters they began rehearsals piecing together scenes that involved their role in chronological order.
This is the first time Pender has worked directly with a playwright when staging a play.
“I have worked on original material, but not with the director. It has been so much fun,” Pender said. “We all have our responsibilities. I give behavior and action to the words. ... Kay Koger, our dramaturge, researchers the facts we are basing the play on ... and Laurel gives us the words and structure.”
Ollstein credits the work of everyone involved in the production with playing an active role in the play’s creation.
“The are the best undergraduate stage managers I have ever worked with. They are at a professional level,” Ollstein said. “This is so important because I am literally giving them new pages every rehearsal. When I came in January we had a reading and I was writing daily. We began rehearsals in late February and I was still bringing in new pages almost daily.
“Students have really helped me develop the cast. You have 18 actors looking straight through their character’s point-of-view and saying to me, ‘My character wouldn’t say this.’ To which I realize they are right, your character wouldn’t say it. They have given me lines.”
Finally, Ollstein said the relationship with director Judith Pender has been invaluable. Ollstein often directs her own work, but prefers another to direct so she can sit back, view the play and also have someone to bounce ideas off of.
“Having a director for a new play for me is like dating. Together you are birthing your play together. Often time there are egos involved, but we’ve had no trouble. Judith’s been incredible in interpreting my stage direction. Judith gives me ideas about rewrites. Actors get to see that relationship modeled for them.”
Pender said the entire process has been about simplification and the ensuring all you do “serves the story”.
“When we began we had too wild a plan technically. We’ve simplified the text and movement. We have not had one single rehearsal that we didn’t change anything,” Pender said as if she was expecting even more to come before opening night.
They Promised Her the Moon’s press packet had 11 cast members listed in mid-March. By the end of March, Ollstein had already added 3 additional characters as well as several reporters to help tell the story for a total of 18 roles.
“This is a great play for colleges to produce with 18 characters because there are more parts for students to play. It is almost impossible to produce a play in any profession theater venue with more than 6 characters.” Ollstein said.
Pender said the play has also been an opportunity for many undergraduate set and costume designers to take part as well as colleagues from across the college through various aspects of set design.
“[The play’s] hopeful and optimistic, but also really, really sad with relation to Jerrie herself. It was about a time in life when all things are possible. The future looms in front of you,” Pender said. “It is an incredible story that needs to be told.”
Did you know?...
NASA representative George Low and Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified women could not qualify as astronaut candidates citing NASA requirements that all candidates be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees, both which were nearly impossible for any American woman at that time.
NASA’s selected the first female astronaut candidates in 1978. Five years later Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel into space. The Soviet Union sent the first woman Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963.
If you go
What: They Promised Her the Moon
Where: Weitzenhoffer Theatre, 563 Elm Ave.
When: 8 p.m. April 12-14, 3 p.m. on April 15.
Cost: $6 for students with ID, $8 general admissions. Reservations can be made by calling the OU Fine Arts College Ticket Service at 325-4101, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The box office is located in the Catlett Music Center, 500 West Boyd. For accommodations on the basis of disability call the OU Fine Arts Box Office at 325-4101.