She Never Went to Space, but OU Flight Instructor Had the Right Stuff


She Never Went to Space, but OU Flight Instructor Had the Right Stuff

NASA didn’t send a woman into space until 1983, and it was 1995 before a female was allowed to pilot the Space Shuttle.

But before Sally Ride and Eileen Collins, there was Gene Nora (pronounced Janora) Jessen and the Mercury 13.

Jessen, 81, a native of Evanston, Illinois, was working her way through school as a flight instructor at the University of Oklahoma in 1961 when she heard about a program that was testing women to go into space. W. Randolph Lovelace, the doctor who ran the Mercury 7 test program, was running a secret program where female pilots were put through the same tests the Mercury 7 men had taken. The research is the subject of a recent Netflix documentary, “Mercury 13.”

Curiosity and challenge

Curious, Jessen wrote to Lovelace and was invited to participate. Women weren’t even allowed to fly in the military then, so Jessen never really expected to go to into space (she calls herself an astro-NOT). Yet, she was confident she was every bit as capable of being an astronaut as any man.

“I didn’t have a goal—it was curiosity and challenge,” Jessen said. “Some in the program really thought they were going to be astronauts. I knew I had no qualifications to become an astronaut.”

“I didn’t have a goal—it was curiosity and challenge. Some in the program really thought they were going to be astronauts. I knew I had no qualifications to become an astronaut.”

Still, Jessen quit her job at OU and underwent testing in New Mexico. Shortly after she began the program, it was killed. 

Despite never making it into space, Jessen has enjoyed a long career as a pilot and author. She’s active in the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female pilots, and only quit flying last year.

“When the program was killed, I got a job flying for Beech Aircraft Corp in Wichita, the dream job of all time,” Jessen said. “I flew as a sales demo pilot in all the states.”

Jessen shares that experience in her book The Fabulous Flight of the Three Musketeers.

Inspiring future generations

Jessen said when she first grabbed the stick of an airplane at 16 years old as a member of the Civil Air Patrol, she knew she’d be a pilot. What she didn’t know was the impact she’d have on girls who dreamed of working in male-dominated fields.

“I was doing it for myself,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about inspiring anyone else.”

When she does think about encouraging females to follow their dreams in STEM careers, it’s not her story she shares, but that of her friend, Donna Shirley.

“Donna and I were in flight training at the same time. She wanted to major in engineering,” Jessen said. “She was advised that girls don’t become engineers.”

Shirley went on to become an aeronautical engineer, working for NASA where she headed up the program to build the Mars Rover. After retirement, Shirley became an instructor and assistant dean in the OU College of Engineering.

“She found her way,” Jessen said.

See Jessen at the OK-WISE Conference Sept. 14

Jessen will share her adventures at the first Oklahoma Women Impacting STEM and Entrepreneurship (OK-WISE) Conference, set for 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Embassy Suites Oklahoma City Downtown/Medical Center. 

The conference is hosted by the Oklahoma Catalyst Programs, part of the University of Oklahoma’s Tom Love Innovation Hub, and partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology.

Other speakers include Michelle Millben, former White House adviser, and Carolyn Rodz, founder of Alice, and AI-based business accelerator in partnership with Dell.

Panel discussions will focus on how women have impacted the fields of science, policy and society, and startups in Oklahoma. Panelists will include experts in the fields of technology and meteorology, as well as entrepreneurs and political activists.

A pre-conference reception will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 13 at Science Museum Oklahoma.

Registration is $30, or free for teachers, students and university faculty with valid identification. For more information or to register, visit www.okcatalyst.com/okwise. The deadline to register is Sept. 10.

OU logo

Tami Althoff

Tami Althoff holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is a reporter with more than 20 years’ experience working for newspapers, including The Oklahoman. She has covered everything from breaking news to local music and art. She loves sports, especially OU football and basketball games, where she often embarrasses her children by yelling too loudly.