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Gene Nora Jessen Much More Than the Woman in Space Program: A Pioneer in Aviation

Gene Nora Jessen Pictured Far Left

1961 saw Gene Nora Jessen, then a 24-year-old pilot, being chosen as one of the select few women to undergo the rigorous testing originally designed for the Mercury 7 astronauts.

Among the 25 women that began the journey, only 13 passed the challenging tests, which was an impressive feat that went far beyond what many had anticipated.

Gene Nora Jessen, however, didn’t let that illustrious accomplishment be the defining moment of her life.

The Woman in Space Program was spearheaded by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II and Brig. Gen. Donald Flickinger to assess female pilots’ suitability for space travel.

Despite the program’s promising outcomes, it was ultimately cut short, which to Jessen, barely registered as anything more than an interesting chapter in her vibrant life.

She considered the attention surrounding the program somewhat puzzling, feeling it was “no special accomplishment” and humorously describing herself and her peers as “astroNOTs.”

Gene Nora Jessen proudly embraced the title of pilot. Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1937, her aviation journey took off early.

By the 11th grade, she had joined the Civil Air Patrol and earned her private pilot license by the age of 19.

Teaching flying lessons financed her University of Oklahoma education, where she became the institution’s first female flight instructor.

After stepping away from her job to join the Lovelace Program, she found her dream role at Beech Aircraft in 1962.

At Beech Aircraft, she flew state-of-the-art planes, taking on tasks like showcasing the newest Musketeer model.

Alongside pilots Joyce Case and Mike Gordon, Jessen traversed over 40,000 miles across the 48 contiguous states, marketing themselves as “The Three Musketeers.”

At that time, she and Case made history as the only female pilots flying for an aircraft manufacturer.

While at Beech Aircraft, she met Leland Robert “Bob” Jessen, a former B-29 pilot from World War II.

The couple later moved to Idaho, where they established a Beech dealership and had two children, Briana and Taylor. Together, they also set up an aviation insurance firm.

Jessen’s accomplishments were not confined to piloting alone. She authored five books on aviation, such as The Fabulous Flight of the Three Musketeers, Amelia Was Right, and Sky Girls: The True Story of the First Woman’s Cross-Country Air Race.

Her writing extended to being a columnist for The Northwest Flyer and The Idaho Statesman. In Sky Girls, she chronicled the experiences of the pioneering female pilots who competed in the first cross-country air race in 1929.

Acknowledged by female astronauts as a pioneer in her field, Jessen maintained a humble outlook.

Barbara Morgan, an astronaut, once praised her support, writing, “Gene Nora, you’re sitting on my shoulder here every day. Thank you.”

Shuttle astronaut Linda Godwin kept in touch with Jessen, and Eileen Collins, celebrated as the first woman pilot of a space mission, invited her to the historic launch of STS-63, which Jessen carefully documented, preserving mementos in her scrapbook.

Gene Nora Jessen’s enduring legacy extends beyond her aviation achievements. Her life and work are commemorated at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Archives, which houses 8 cubic feet of material related to her life.

Her story, one of determination, skill, and humility, continues to inspire long after her time with the Mercury 13 program.

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