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Jeannette Piccard – First Woman to Reach the Stratosphere

Jeannette Piccard – First Woman to Reach the Stratosphere
This short article on Jeannette Piccard is being sent in honor of Women’s History Month.
On October 23, 1934, Jeannette Piccard became the first woman to reach the stratosphere. Accompanied by her husband, Dr. Jean Piccard, as scientific observer, she piloted the Century of Progress balloon to an altitude of 57,979 feet. They flew in a spherical gondola that was, in many ways, a precursor for future spacecraft. The gondola, a seven-foot diameter sphere, contained a life support system to sustain them and scientific instruments Jean used to study cosmic radiation.
The balloon had been fabricated for the Century of Progress Chicago International Exposition. Dow Chemical Company built the gondola from a magnesium alloy they called Dowmetal; the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company made the rubberized cotton balloon. Navy Lt. Commander Thomas G. W. Settle and Marine Corps Major Chester Fordney used the balloon and gondola to reach 61,237 feet on November 20, 1933.
Jean Piccard had been instrumental in planning the Century of Progress balloon and he had an agreement that once the Chicago Exposition was done with the aerostat, he would be able to use it himself. Jean was eager to make a flight – his twin brother Auguste had been the first to use a sealed gondola to reach the stratosphere in 1931. Because Jean would be busy tending to the scientific instruments, he needed someone to pilot the balloon. His wife Jeannette earned a balloonist’s license so she could be his pilot. She was the first woman to become a licensed spherical balloon pilot.
A qualified scientist in her own right, Jeannette Piccard had a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College (1918) and a master’s degree in organic chemistry from the University of Chicago (1919.) While the Piccards were building support for their flight, Henry Ford became interested in the project and let them use hangar space at the Ford Airport at Dearborn, Michigan.
On the morning of October 23, 1934, Jean and Jeannette Piccard set out for the stratosphere. Their pet turtle Fleur de Lys accompanied them as a passenger. A cheer rose from the crowd of spectators when explosive charges severed the restraining ropes. The cheers quickly turned to gasps when the balloon did not rise but stayed within a few feet of the ground, headed towards the trees that bordered the airport. Mrs. Piccard dropped some ballast and the balloon started to climb. It cleared the trees and continued gaining altitude.
Pre-launch predictions called for clear skies. Once aloft, they discovered a solid overcast. As they passed through a layer of clouds, the balloon began swaying from side to side. Standing in the open hatch, Mrs. Piccard nearly fell out of the gondola as she reached for the rope that controlled the vent valve at the top of the balloon. Fortunately she regained her footing, secured the rope, and closed the gondola hatch. Although she wore a parachute, had she fallen, it would likely have had disastrous consequences because they were above Lake Erie at the time. The balloon soon cleared the clouds and broke into bright sunshine.
People on the ground spotted the balloon over Akron and Sandusky, Ohio, but the Piccards could not see through the clouds and couldn’t tell where they were. Depending on how high they reached and how long they remained aloft, there was a risk they could land in the Atlantic Ocean. As it turned out, Jean and Jeannette were still over Ohio when they reached their maximum altitude of 57,979 feet. Jeannette Piccard was the first woman to reach the stratosphere. They could have dropped more ballast in an attempt to set an altitude record, but decided it would be better to try to land rather than risk an ocean landing. Mrs. Piccard opened the hydrogen vent valve and they began their descent.
As the balloon entered the clouds, it cooled and contracted, increasing their rate of descent. Suddenly they were dropping out of control. Jeannette dropped all their ballast in an attempt to regain control over the balloon. They were still falling too fast as she emptied the last bag. She opened the hatch and tossed a battery (that was attached to a parachute) overboard. One of the cosmic ray instruments was shielded with 550 pounds of lead shot, which Jean dropped through a special chute in a desperate attempt to slow their fall.
A heavy layer of fog blocked their view of the ground so they still couldn’t tell what was beneath them. Suddenly there was a break in the clouds and they saw they were headed straight at the roof of a farmhouse. Jeannette managed to clear the structure, bouncing between the house and the nearby barn. The Piccards continued to drift along the ground until the gondola finally settled into the limbs of a large elm tree on a farm near Cadiz, Ohio. A crowd of curiosity seekers soon gathered. When told where they were, Mrs. Piccard laughed and said: “Oh dear, and I had wanted to land on the lawn of the White House.” Someone asked if she would be willing to make such a risky trip again. “Oh, just give me a chance,” was her reply.
Mrs. Piccard subsequently earned a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota, where her husband became an engineering instructor. One of his graduate students was Robert Gilruth, who headed NASA’s human space flight program from 1958 to 1972. Jean Piccard died in 1963. After his death, Gilruth invited Jeannette to become a consultant for NASA. She moved to Houston and worked for NASA until 1970, when she decided to pursue her other passion – theology – and was ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1971. Three years later, she was ordained as an Episcopal Priest in Philadelphia. At the time, this caused a great deal of controversy in the Anglican Church. However, at the General Convention held in Minneapolis in 1976, the Church voted to open the priesthood to women and Jeannette’s ordination was confirmed the following year. By that time, she was back in Minneapolis, having returned in 1975. Jeannette Piccard remained in Minneapolis until her death in 1981.