Gene Nora Jessen 

The life of an "astro-not"

click to enlarge jessen.jpg

Courtesy Gene Nora Jessen

The recent emergency landing of a Southwest Airlines plane by Captain Tammie Jo Shults has drawn attention once again to female airline pilots, who only make up 4.4% of the force in the U.S. Shults, 56, was also one of the first fighter jet pilots in the U.S. Navy.

Only about a decade before she joined the Navy in 1985, though, she wouldn’t have been able to fly for the military at all, and female military pilots couldn’t serve in combat until 1993.

NASA in the 1960s and 70s was similarly closed to female astronauts, because they had to be military test pilots. But in 1960, Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II, a member of a NASA committee, had a hunch that female pilots could pass the same tests given the male candidates for the Mercury 7 program. He was correct, and 13 women passed his privately-funded, secret tests. The last round of testing was halted by NASA and then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, though. It was just too controversial. The women went on to other careers, many in aviation.

Over the years, their story came out, and they were dubbed the “Mercury 13.” Their experiences have been chronicled in books and on television, and now again in a new Netflix documentary, Mercury 13, which premiered on Friday, April 20.

Meridian resident Gene Nora Jessen, 81, one of the original Mercury 13, has a featured role in the film, which includes scenes filmed at the Tower Grill at the Nampa Municipal Airport. Jessen, who came to Idaho with her husband Bob in 1967, is an accomplished pilot, air racer and flight instructor, as well as the co-owner of Boise Air Service from 1984-2005. She’s also the author of three books.

Idaho Public Television producer and host Marcia Franklin caught up with Jessen to ask her about the documentary and to get her thoughts on being an “astro-not,” as Jessen dubs herself.Ultimately, she’s rather nonchalant about the experience.

“We didn’t do anything,” she told Franklin. “We just took a little physical exam and it was kind of an adventure. But they do say that we’re the pioneers in this, so I guess we’ll accept that.”

What did you think of the documentary?

I was pleased with it. Sometimes I sign my letters, “Yours for accurate history.” And that’s very important for me, that it was accurate. They told the story the way it was, with the blemishes and with the good things. I was awfully afraid it was going to be a “we hate men” story. And it was not.

NASA doesn’t come off very well, though, at least in the ‘60s.

Well, I think NASA really didn’t have any choice. They had these men who were heroes who were flying the most extreme kind of flying there was, and they had a whole big lineup of men who wanted to be astronauts.

John Glenn also doesn’t come off well, either. He’s quoted as saying, “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”

Well, I think they couldn’t resist that. And what John Glenn said was just exactly the way things were at the time. The women didn’t all stay home and take care of the babies, but nevertheless that was the opinion of a lot of people, that the men do the important stuff and the women keep house. He unfortunately made the mistake of saying it out loud.

What were the tests like?

I don’t think they really had any idea what they were testing for. They were just testing. “What kind of body do we need to fly in space?” “Well, I don’t know. We’ve never flown in space.”

So they did just everything they could think. Some of it was probably silly and some of it was unnecessary. There was a lot of poking and prodding. There was some discomfort on some of them.

In the documentary, one woman mentions a test where ice water was poured into her ear.

That happened, the ice water in the ears. That was kind of different. It didn’t hurt. It was kind of odd.

Do you think the tests caused any health problems?

I don’t think so. I always kind of wondered if any astronauts got cancer from all those x-rays. They did 75 different things to us, is the figure that I heard, and lots and lots of x-rays. I mean they x-rayed everything they could find. And it just seemed like that was excessive. But no, knock on wood -- for heaven’s sakes, I’m 81 now and I still don’t have any bad results, so it must have been all right.

In the documentary, you’re the only one who doesn’t seem to have any bitterness that the testing was canceled.

There were some who really, truly believed they were going to be astronauts. And it ruined their lives, really. And my feeling was, “Boy isn’t this fun? What a challenge. And what an adventure to get a little finger in the pie and find out what this is all about.” But I sure didn’t ever think that I was going to be an astronaut.

And really, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. There I was, an unemployed “astro-not.” I’ve got to find a job. So I wrote a letter to everybody in the United States who had “airplane” in their name. And I got this job at Beech Aircraft Corporation, which was actually the greatest job in the world. I loved it! It’s one of those “the door closes and another door opens” types of situations.

Do you ever wish you had been born now, when women can be astronauts and military pilots?

Absolutely not. I’ve just had a wonderful time flying airplanes and the things that have happened in my life. I don’t want to be born now. I don’t yearn to be an astronaut. It’s really a shame to spend your whole life being disappointed that you didn’t get to be an astronaut.

What if someone paid your way to go up on one of these private rockets?

Gosh, it looks like a lot of fun to me. But on the other hand, I’d sure be careful before I signed up.

Didn’t a writer named Jim Cross come up with the name “Mercury 13?”

He coined it. And do you know that not one person has ever me asked me that question -- where did the name come from? I think they think NASA did it.

He called me one day and he said, “I’ve thought of a great name for your group.” And I said “What?” And he said “Mercury 13.” And it isn’t a good name. We had nothing to do with the Mercury program. It’s a lousy name.

It caught on, and I was honored several years ago by NASA down in Houston, and here’s NASA honoring somebody who’s – “Mercury 13.” And I thought, “Well, we’ve come full circle, haven’t we? NASA not only recognizes us, it recognizes our name.” So we’re now in the history of NASA.

Jim, he just broke his neck trying to sell this story about the Mercury 13, and nobody would buy it. And he’s deceased and I think of him every day now. Poor Jim, you know. He worked so hard at it and finally someone got it off the ground.

I still rarely see female airline pilots.

They’re there. I’m so conscious when I’m walking in a terminal building of how many stripes are on a sleeve. So I see ‘em, but they’re not many. But they’re coming along. And right now, the airlines are desperate for pilots, so -- aha! -- they may start hiring more women.

I think we just have to get more in the pipeline…and we (the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots) are giving out tons of scholarships. We have more and more young women who are wanting to go all the way; they’re not wanting to be a private pilot. They want to be a commercial pilot.

What did you think of the Southwest pilot who recently landed a plane with only one engine?

She responded with her training, experience, and cool. Bravo!

I was sorry to hear you’re not flying anymore.

I’ve got macular degeneration in my left eye. And when you just have one eye, you don’t have depth perception, and so it makes for a really interesting landing. And so I quit flying; the airplane is for sale. And it was kind of traumatic. But I made peace with it. It’s OK. It’s alright.

What do you hope people will take away from the documentary?

I hope the response is going to be, “Well, isn’t that interesting that they gave it a whirl? It wasn’t quite the right time yet, but now we’re moving along.”

Marcia Franklin is a producer and host at Idaho Public Television. Gene Nora Jessen was featured in a documentary Franklin produced about Idaho astronaut Barbara Morgan: http://www.pbs.org/program/barbara-morgan.

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