Meet The Women Of Mercury 13

Jerrie Cobb
They were aviation pioneers who were virtually unknown for nearly half a century.

But as CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller reports, a sea of graduating seniors recognized them for having had the right stuff at the wrong time.

The University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh awarded honorary doctorates to eight of the remaining Mercury 13 – thirteen of America's finest female pilots who trained secretly to become astronauts at the dawn of the space race.

"We were ready to lay our lives on the line to be an astronaut," 75-year-old Jerrie Cobb said.

But when NASA said "manned space flight," it meant just that. Sexism and prejudice scrubbed their mission and their dreams.

"I finally got to talk with Vice President Johnson and he said, 'Jerrie if we let you or other women into the space program, we have to let blacks in, we'd have to let Mexican-Americans in, we have to let every minority in and we just can't do it'."

Jerrie Cobb was the first of what NASA called the "First Lady Astronaut Trainees." She had set records as a pilot and logged twice as many flight hours as John Glenn.

All of the Mercury 13 were accomplished. All aced the same rigorous training as the Mercury 7 men, and sometimes outperformed them.

"The women took part in much more strenuous tests," said Martha Ackmann, who wrote the book that introduced these trailblazers to the world. She also gave Saturday's key note address.

While the Mercury 13 women were grounded, the Russians launched the first woman into space in 1963.

It would take the U.S. two more decades to send up astronaut Sally Ride, and another 12 years before Eileen Collins would pilot a space mission.

"I'm just sorry that it took our government so long," Cobb said. "We wanted to go. We were qualified and we were ready."

The glass ceiling remains in aviation. Only a quarter of the nation's 154 astronauts are women. The numbers are even smaller for female pilots. They account for just 2.5 percent of pilots flying military jets and 3.5 percent of pilots of commercial aircraft.

The men who made up the Mercury 7 got fame and glory, and many believe it's time the Mercury 13 got their due.

"I think something like a congressional gold medal would be an honor," Ackmann said. "I think their names should be in the Smithsonian."

For Jerrie Cobb, finding the right reward would be simple.

"I still expect to go into space," Cobb said. "It's what I was born to do, it's my destiny."