In 1959, Cecelia "Cece" Bibby found her way into the RCA graphics arts department located at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Arriving at the dawn of the space age, she would soon find herself surrounded by what was then the men-only world of high performance jets and rocketry.
An artist by trade, talent, and self-determination, Bibby would become the first to design and paint a logo on the outside of a U.S. manned spacecraft destined for orbit. She would work with three of the Mercury astronauts to customize their craft and in the process see her artwork become as recognizable as the astronauts themselves.
Bibby's path to becoming the first woman allowed on the launch pad was not one without its hurdles.
Following the loss of her father at age 3, Bibby and her brother lived with their mother for six years before the pressure of raising two young children became too much for their single parent. Made a ward of the Masons at age nine, Bibby and her brother would live in the Masonic Home for Children in Covina, California until they came of legal age. She would never see her mother again.
"I don't know what would have become of me if it wasn't for that home," says Bibby today.
"I never took typing or shorthand in school because I felt I would have no need for those skills," explains Bibby of her public school education. "The Home never told me I had to take practical courses, yet I know they did tell some of the other girls that."
Bibby says that becoming an artist wasn't something that she consciously planned.
"As a child that's all I ever wanted to be... I used my crayons on everything, probably even on walls. I cannot remember a time when I wanted to be anything else."
"The Home saw to it that I had the art supplies I needed. Not all the ones I wanted, but what I needed."
After graduating from high school, Bibby left the home to enter art school. To support herself, she took a job as an operator with the local telephone company.
It was there she made her first connection with the space program, which itself was in its infancy.
"I used to place calls for Dr. Theodore von Karman, who worked at Aerojet Corporation in Azusa, California. He would place calls to the Banana River Test Site (which later became Cape Canaveral) to all kinds of scientists and engineers. Sometimes I'd have to chase people down via telephone and Dr. V was always so appreciative of my efforts," tells Bibby.
"While trying to put his calls through, he would talk to me and tell me what he was working on. He had that great German accent and was so interesting to talk to. I guess that intrigued me, knowing there were those tests going on in Florida."
It was a want ad in the newspaper, rather than inspiration from a founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that led Bibby to the East Coast.
She was hired as a draftsman for RCA's Missile Division at Patrick Air Force Base "doing 'as built' drawings for the downrange missile tracking sites." Bibby was then transferred to the publications department, "where we did all kinds of artwork such as engineers' ideas of space."
"I left there and went to Aerospace Corporation, which was a think tank," explains Bibby. "Most of the people there had PhD's except for me. I did illustrations based on their ideas about the future of space. Ideas like hotels and the space shuttle or the International Space Station. These ideas were figments of someone's imagination and I would convert them to pictures. What they would do is sit down and talk to me and tell me about their idea and I would then draw it in color."
In 1959, Chrysler would hire Bibby as a contract artist at the NASA Publications office, where she worked in the NASA Administration Building across the street from the astronaut office.
Friends in (soon to be) high places
"From what John Glenn told me later, [he] had decided that he wanted the name of his spacecraft applied in script and applied by hand, because Al Shepard's and Gus Grissom's [mission logo] names had been applied by some mechanic who went into town, got a can of spray paint, a stencil cut of the names and then spray painted them on to the capsule. John did not want that, he had a specific idea," explains Bibby of the way in which she and the first American to orbit came to know each other.
"John Glenn wanted Friendship 7 done in script. He wanted it applied by hand and not by stencil and a can of spray paint."
The astronaut office called the art department and explained to its manager what they wanted. "He went over to the astronaut office," recalls Bibby, "and talked with John about how John wanted to do the job."
"My boss came back to the department and announced what 'Colonel Glenn' wanted and told me that the job was mine. He said that men had such poor handwriting and so he wanted me to do the job because as a woman I might have better handwriting," remembers Bibby.
"I made up about three rough designs. He took them from me and went over to have John make a selection."
"My boss came back from the astronaut office with a very red face and threw the selected design on my drawing board. [He said] that 'Colonel Glenn' wanted the person who made the design to paint it on the capsule. I could tell he wasn't a happy camper."
Bibby later learned from Glenn and other astronauts who had been there that day, what had transpired between the astronaut and her boss to set him off. The conversation as described went something like this:
Glenn: I want the person who designed this to paint it on by hand.
Boss: Well, that's a woman.
Boss: She'd have to go out to the launch pad and up to the top of gentry.
Glenn: Is she handicapped in some way?
Boss: Well, she's a woman.
Glenn: Is she afraid of heights?
Boss: I don't know... but she's a woman.
Glenn: Why don't you find out from her whether she has some objection to going up to the top of the gantry.
Boss: Well, you know, I could have a stencil cut and have one of the guys spray paint it on the capsule.
Glenn: I don't want a stencil and a can of spray paint. I want the artist to hand paint this design for me. Go ask her about it.
"John said that when the boss uttered the words 'stencil and spray paint' it really got his dander up," says Bibby.
"I got the job simply because [my boss] thought, in the beginning, that he was putting a woman down. I got the job as a fluke, but I have been always glad that John really persisted in having the designer paint Friendship 7 on his capsule," states Bibby.
Bibby became the only woman to make her way up the gantry to the White Room during the Mercury Program. To paint the Friendship 7 logo on Glenn's capsule, she had to take the elevator up the side of the Atlas, don a white coat and apply the artwork to the corrugated finish of the spacecraft's shingles.
A woman in the White Room
"The first trip out to the pad was to find the area that I was to do the painting on the spacecraft and to measure, because I would want to do a large cartoon so I could trace it onto the capsule. I would use chalk to transfer my design to the capsule," explains Bibby.
It was at the gantry White Room that she encountered the problems of being a woman in a man's haven.
"When I got up to the top of gantry I encountered Pad Leader [Guenter Wendt] who informed me that women weren't allowed up there. I was told leave immediately.
"I told him he'd have to take it up with John Glenn and I went ahead and did my job."
Bibby was subjected to taunts from other pad workers.
"It was very difficult to work on the project when you were being subjected to ridicule," relates Bibby. "That, coupled with the fact that the capsule was being checked out and subject to movement or tests caused the whole project to take about a week to complete."
In spite of the objections, Bibby completed the logo and John Glenn - after many delays - launched into space as the first American to orbit the Earth. Friendship 7 lifted off with her art on February 20, 1962 - Cece Bibby's birthday.
Scotty, Wally and Bibby ('Oh, my!')
Cece would follow-up Friendship 7 by doing the logo art for Aurora 7 and Sigma 7 - Scott Carpenter's and Wally Schirra's missions.
Before she could paint for them though, she had to meet them.
"I met Wally first," recalls Bibby.
"When I was told to report to the Astronaut Office to handle the mission logo for John Glenn, I was stopped at the gate. I did not have the proper ID tag to get into the building. The guard called their office and they said they would send someone down to escort me."
"I was standing there talking to the guard when he said, 'You must really rate. Look who they sent down to meet you.' It was Wally Schirra."
"Wally came out with that big 'Wally Schirra grin' on and he was wearing a sport shirt, chinos and loafers. He came over and introduced himself to me and signed me in with that lovely Schirra voice. He took me upstairs to meet John Glenn."
Glenn took Bibby around the office and introduced her to Deke Slayton, Gordo Cooper and Scott Carpenter.
"I guess Wally had kind of clued them in that this young lady was there as the artist," assumes Bibby. "I don't know whether they had expected a male artist or not, but I had a good conversation with them."
"Gordo made the comment to me, 'Well, you are not what we expected.' I asked what had they expected and Gordo said, 'You don't giggle when we talk to you.'"
Bibby's ability to exceed the astronauts' expectations had previously caught Carpenter's attention, though he did not know it was her at the time.
"I was out putting the top up on my car because it was going to rain. Right about that same time a U.S. Air Force car with Scott Carpenter in the passenger seat [drove by]. He did a double take because he saw me putting the top on the car," tells Bibby.
"I was wearing a patchwork skirt with red patent leather belt and matching shoes. A few weeks later, when I went over to meet John that day, I had on the same outfit and Scott had remembered me. Scott told them that I was the owner of the AC ACE."
At the time, Bibby was a rarity: she owned and could repair her own sports car. She had an AC ACE. The car was a British made racing machine that Shelby would later use as a model for his famous Shelby Cobra series of race cars. It was bright red with white racing strips.
That car would lead to one of the many pranks that the astronauts pulled on Bibby.
The Mercury astronauts were great practical jokers. They really enjoyed playing jokes - "gotchas" - on anyone they considered fair game. Their houses were right across the street from Bibby's house.
"One of the taillights went out on my sports car," tells Bibby. "I was in my garage trying to replace the light. It wasn't the bulb, but a short in the wiring.
"Gordo ambled over to find out what I was doing and I explained that I would have to take the car to a mechanic to get the wiring checked. Gordo said he could fix it. I went into the house to answer the telephone and shortly after that Gordo came in and said that he had found the short and the light was fixed."
"The next morning it was raining. I put the top up on the car, turned on the car lights and went to work. When I got into the parking lot, one of the guys I worked with told me that he thought I had permanent brake lights."
"Sure enough," confirmed Bibby, "when I turned the lights on again I had permanent brake lights, not just plain old taillights."
"That rat!" exclaimed Bibby. "The guy wanted to know what I meant by that, so I told him the story about Gordo 'fixing' my taillight. Well, my friend got a good chuckle out of that."
The Naked Lady Incident
One of the more famous 'gotchas' began as a result of a comment made by Mercury 4 astronaut Gus Grissom to Bibby about her painting Glenn's logo.
"One day, as I was leaving the Astronaut Office, I met Gus on the stairs," remembers Bibby. "He asked how the 'Boy Scout's paint job' was going. Gus said he thought what I should really do was paint naked ladies on the capsule because that would really shake John up, since he was a 'straight arrow.'"
"I told Gus that a naked lady on the capsule's exterior was not a good idea. As Gus headed up the stairs he made a crack that I was chicken. I told him it was my job that would be in jeopardy and not his, that they wouldn't fire an astronaut, but an artist was another matter. Gus just made a clucking noise as he went up the stairs."
It was a dare that Bibby could not let go.
"I thought about how I could do it and came up with the idea that I could play a joke on John by using the [craft's] periscope view for the naked lady drawing. The periscope had a plug located on the exterior of the capsule and the plug would be removed just prior to the countdown."
"I painted a naked lady with the caption that said:
It's just you and me against the world, John Baby.
"I had the photo lab make a print of the drawing and gave it to a friend, Sam Beddingfield. An engineer on the pad, [he] would be able to put the lady into the periscope view and then remove her just prior to the beginning of the countdown," says Bibby.
As it happened, the day the drawing was put in place, the flight was scrubbed.
"When I came into work the next morning there was a note taped to the lamp on my drawing board. The note was from John Glenn telling me he had gotten a big kick out of the drawing. He also added that I shouldn't let anyone tell me that he was upset about the drawing."
Based upon that comment, Bibby figured there was a problem and there sure was.
"It is my understanding that [manager] Rocco Petrone wanted to have me fired due to the naked lady painting," tells Bibby. "Petrone told my boss that I had upset John with the painting and could have caused the mission to fail. I showed John's note to my boss, but it didn't carry any weight with him."
"I didn't get fired. John and Gus intervened and defended me. Gus even said he challenged me to the deed in the first place."
"My boss didn't dare fire me. He did try to get me banned from the pad, but that didn't work either. All the guys banded together and told management that they intended to have me design their insignias and paint them on their capsules. They really stepped up and protected me. I will forever appreciate their help and friendship."
Bolstered by the strong support of the astronauts, Bibby put paint to paper again.
"Just before John's next launch date, I did another lady for his periscope view. She wasn't what he expected. She was a rather frumpy old lady in a house dress. She had a mop in one hand and bucket in the other. The bucket had "Friendship" on it in the same script as his insignia on the capsule. The caption was:
You were expecting maybe someone else, John Baby?
Not long after, Scott Carpenter asked Bibby for a "nekkid lady" of his own.
"I told him I thought I could manage that and I did."
"I had wanted to do a lady for Wally too, but thought it was pushing my luck after an incident that occurred prior to Wally's flight. It made me think twice about doing any more naked ladies."
NASA had published a manual about safety issues on launch pads. One item covered was the use of elevators. A photo was used to show the correct use. They grouped six men in a pad elevator and photographed the proper way to ride in it.
NASA distributed several hundred manuals only to find out that some enterprising artist airbrushed out one of the men in the back row and substituted a very buxom blonde wearing nothing more than a smile. Once NASA found out they recalled all the manuals, but the majority were never recovered.
"The finger of blame was pointed right at me," tells Bibby.
"I was in the clear though, because NASA had farmed out the contract on the manual and I had nothing to do with it. However, that cured me of painting naked ladies."
Life after NASA
Bibby initially left NASA in 1962 with the thought of moving back to California, but the thrill of the Cape and the launches soon lured her back.
"I left NASA after Wally's flight, but I returned shortly after Gordo's flight. I finally left NASA in 1970 when I got married."
Toward the end of the Apollo era, Bibby married a naval officer. Once she left Florida, she traveled the world with her husband, including stops in Singapore, Brazil, Norway and the Caribbean. Today she lives in a small town in Georgia.
Bibby recently re-created the astronauts' mission logos in a painting entitled "Out of This World". She continues to create art through mosaics made out of pieces of broken china.
This article first appeared on collectSPACE and is published here with permission.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!