During mandatory preflight screenings in 1961, 13 women outperformed their male counterparts. But still, they never made it to space.
“They Promised Her the Moon,” a play running April 6 through May 12 at The Old Globe theater in San Diego, focuses on historical sexism in the aerospace industry and one woman in particular – trailblazing pilot Jerrie Cobb.
“I wanted to write about a protagonist that was stupendously hungry. Jerrie Cobb gave up everything to become an astronaut,” said UCLA alumna and playwright Laurel Ollstein. “Her focus was so clear, and it’s amazing to see how passionately she followed her dream.”
Ollstein herself hadn’t been exposed to these women’s stories until recently and said she was shocked their achievements are not more well-known. While conducting research for a previous project, Ollstein stumbled upon the 13 women who qualified for space travel, collectively known as the Mercury 13. The 1960s space race is a period in history often characterized by honor and victory, and uphill battles against oppression remain largely unknown, she said.
“They Promised Her the Moon” follows Cobb’s story from age 7 to her mid-50s. The play tracks her transformation from aspiring pilot to icon who defied the odds by pursuing space travel.
Ollstein said she wanted to highlight Cobb’s story in particular because she was the first woman to officially pass the preflight exams. She was unfairly excluded from the Project Mercury missions but even then, Cobb remained an advocate for gender equality. She later took her passion to Washington, where she testified before Congress in a hearing that investigated whether NASA was discriminating against women. Although Cobb’s dreams were dashed, Ollstein said her tenacity was unmatched. Sexism dominated the industry, and gender prejudices formed the basis of what a typical astronaut was supposed to look like, she said.
“Most of the male astronauts at the time had blondish hair and were relatively the same height. They looked like little Ken dolls,” she said. “Those were the heroes in everyone’s minds. The thought of a woman joining them on their mission was a hard pill for those boys to swallow.”
One of the ways in which Ollstein wanted to emphasize this fight against sexism was by opening the play with Cobb stationed in an isolation tank, which tests the effects of sensory deprivation that may occur while in space. The preflight exam often gives rise to intense hallucinations and feelings of entrapment, Ollstein said. But Cobb lasted longer than any of her male counterparts, which Ollstein saw as the perfect theatrical segue into the character’s story arc.
It’s valuable to recognize how important it is for audiences to understand that such obstacles are representative of society as a whole, she said. Ollstein believes that opening up the conversation on equality with “They Promised Her the Moon” serves as a launching point to recognize where discrimination exists and how to combat it.
Mary Beth Fisher, who plays Jacqueline Cochran, a pilot who led the preflight funding programs, said it is important to tell Cobb’s story to emphasize how she actively advocated for women. Cobb’s determination was unconventional, especially in such a male-dominated field, she said. One scene that shows her laser-focused energy is when she first meets Cochran, said Morgan Hallett, who plays Cobb in the production.
Cochran showed Cobb it was alright to love flying, but more importantly, that it was alright to love something that had historically and socially been deemed masculine, which is a message the play tries to communicate through Cobb’s story, she said.
Even behind the scenes, Ollstein said “They Promised Her the Moon” aims to break expectations of workplace demographics. This was the first time an Old Globe theater production had an all-female crew, she said. The dynamic was very collaborative, Fisher said. Women bring open-mindedness to the table, and everyone’s voices were always seen and heard, she said.
Having an all-female crew is a symbolic stride toward inclusion, and sharing these stories of female resilience is a step in the right direction, Fisher said.
“There’s a great sense of pride in seeing a forgotten piece of history being told,” she said. “Young girls are watching these intelligent female astronauts persevere and thinking to themselves, ‘I can do that, too.’”