Mercury 13: Gene Nora Jessen on Netflix's New Documentary, Women in Space, Aviation

In the early 1960s, after NASA had selected seven American men to go to space as part of its first-ever astronaut class, a researcher who worked with the agency started his own project: Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, along with renowned pilot Jacqueline Cochran, picked 25 American women who had the potential to become astronauts.

Netflix's new documentary Mercury 13, set for release Friday, tells the story of 13 of those female aviators, who passed the same screening as the male NASA astronauts. When the space agency found out, however, that Lovelace intended to continue testing and training the Mercury 13 women in Pensacola, Florida, the program was shut down. A congressional hearing followed, but the women never made it to space—or into NASA's ranks.

Gene Nora Jessen was 23 when she visited the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the '60s. Now 81, she talked to Newsweek from her home in Meridian, Idaho, about her career as a flight instructor and pilot, and participating in Lovelace's program.

mercury 13 women at nasa Members of Mercury 13, the group of women who were tested to see if women could become astronauts. From left: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. NASA

How did you get started in aviation? 
When I was in high school, I joined the Civil Air Patrol in Chicago, and the seniors used to take cadets for rides. This one fella who I always rode with let me have "stick time." He let me fly the airplane a little bit, and he said to me, "You're a natural." I've been a flight instructor for many years, and I know you say things to students to encourage them, but I believed that. When deciding where to go to college, I picked the University of Oklahoma, which had a large flight school. For $285, I learned to fly—this was back in 1956. I worked my way through college teaching flying. 

How did you find out about Lovelace's research on women possibly going to space?
When I was teaching flying at the University of Oklahoma, we had competitions with Oklahoma State University. I was there, and Wally Funk, who participated in the Mercury 13 program, whispered to me, "There’s a secret program going on testing women physically, taking the astronaut physical test." I got the name of Dr. Lovelace, who was putting this thing together. It was not NASA—it was Dr. Lovelace’s program.

What were the tests like?
They were six days long, like a physical you'd never seen before. They didn't really know what kind of physical condition you needed to be in to go to space, so they did a lot of things that were maybe a little odd. Once, I sat in a chair at the end of a dark hallway, and a doctor at the other end held a piece of paper with the letter C on it. He said, "I'm going to hold this, and you tell me if the C opens to the right or left, up or down." I couldn't see it, but I had this feeling that it opened to the right, and he was very pleased with that answer. I've always had the feeling he mentally sent me that message.

After the tests, what happened?
We were going to go to Florida and have the Navy test us in their facilities. About that time, NASA got wind of it and said, "What are you doing? We don't need women astronauts." In fact, it would be years before there were any women astronauts. So that was the end of it.

How much experience did you have at that point?
I had 1,500 hours of flying time in trainers [small airplanes]. I really was not qualified to be an astronaut. I didn't believe that I was going to be an astronaut. But it was an adventure, in my mind, to be involved to that extent.

Why did you think you'd never be an astronaut?
At that time, there were only the original male astronauts, and these guys were really top-drawer pilots. I could see that there was no way that I could match up with those guys who had been selected and who were astronauts at that time. So I got a big kick out of taking the test and having a little connection there with NASA and seeing what the first step was in becoming an astronaut.

Did the women who were part of Mercury 13 ever meet?
Some of the women went through [testing] alone; some went through in pairs, and I went through with Janey Hart. We were the last two to be tested. Janey Hart was a phenomenon. She was 40 years old and a mother [of eight]. She flew a helicopter, went around in her boat—she just did all kinds of things. She was not only very smart, she was more fun than you can imagine.

Did NASA say why it didn’t want to send women into space?
I’ve never heard any reaction from NASA. I think the reasoning, we were told later, was that Dwight Eisenhower had set up the criteria for astronauts, and you had to be a military pilot, a test pilot, have an engineering degree—which John Glenn [one of the first NASA astronauts] didn’t have—and those were the criteria. Well, we didn’t meet those criteria at all, because women could not fly jets and women were not in the Air Force. 

Do you think there was something else keeping NASA from approving?
Later on, when there were women astronauts, some didn't meet those criteria either, but the qualifications had changed. I think probably the reason was: "Good grief, why are we going to fool with women? We've got our hands full now. We have a huge list of people who want to be astronauts who meet the qualifications." 

It was surprising to see John Glenn's comments about women going to space in the documentary.
John Glenn did not come off very well in this film. The quote from John Glenn—that men fly the airplanes and test the airplanes, and women stay home and take care of the children—that wasn't very nice. I'm sure he was later sorry that he said it. I was pleased with the film because I was afraid it might turn into an "Oh, we hate the men" kind of a situation, and it was not. It told the story, and I think John Glenn was the only one who got a black eye.

What was your reaction when Jacqueline Cochran made her statement during the congressional hearing that basically pulled her support for the program?
I was doing other things....I really couldn't be bothered with it. I had moved on. I was off flying for Beech [Aircraft Corporation]. Three of us flew three new airplanes in a formation flight in all 48 contiguous states in 90 days. It was a terrific experience but an unusual, very unusual, job for a young woman. So I was not even aware that the congressional hearings were going on.

Did most of you move on when you heard the program wasn’t going to happen?
Some of the others moved on with their lives and accomplished things in aviation; some of them were really upset. It kind of ruined their lives. Several of the women were very, very bitter. They thought they were going to be astronauts, and I was surprised because to me, there’s no way I was going to be an astronaut. But I sure got a kick out of having a little finger in the pie, you know? Taking those tests and seeing what happened and all of that. I just came out of it smelling like a rose—it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.  

I had to quit my job to go to Pensacola. Of course, we didn’t go to Pensacola, but my boss said it was the beginning of the semester, we were going to have a lot of new students, and he could not let me have the time off. So I quit my job, and as a result of that, I had to get another job. I always say I was an unemployed "astro-not." My timing was absolutely perfect—I got this job at Beech Aircraft. For me, it worked out great, and it’s just the perfect example of: If a door closes, another one might open, and probably will if you pay attention.

How is it different now for women who want to fly?
Now they fly everything. They fly in space. They fly for the airlines. They're flying in the military.

Eileen Collins, who is in the documentary and was the first woman to pilot one of the space shuttles, invited you all to her launch. What was that like, to see her launch, to see her representing all the women who came before her?
Half a dozen of us went to her launch, and that was wonderful. She has been very kind to us. They have all—all of the women—been very generous in giving us some credit for paving the way. We just happened to be there and participated. 

Are you still flying?
Last year I turned 80, and I got macular degeneration in my left eye. I can see just fine out of my right, but you need two good eyes for depth perception. It makes for a very interesting landing in the airplane if you don't have depth perception. This past year, I quit flying. It was dramatic, but I made peace with it.

When Netflix approached you about the documentary, what was your reaction?
Probably like my reaction to taking the physical: It would be an adventure. It would be fun. I didn't know what I was getting into. In seeing the film, the first thing I said was, "Where'd you get that old lady to play me?" Film is even worse than the mirror. It's just kind of amazing, after all these years, to have the attention and the film. I'm glad that the story has been told, and I'm glad that it was told well. 

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