Jeanette and Jean Piccard boarding their stratospheric balloon

Heaven and Earth

A pioneer in space and religion was called by her care for the human condition

Published07/31/2019 , by Gayla Marty

This story is excerpted from the Summer 2019 issue of Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.

Jeannette Piccard, Ph.D. ’42, gained fame twice in her life: in 1934 when she became the first woman to reach the stratosphere, and again in 1974 when she became the first woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal church.

In the Discovery Gallery on the University Scholars Walk, it’s her 11-mile ascent that’s celebrated. She made it as the pilot of a seven-foot-diameter pressurized gondola carrying scientific instruments, her children’s pet turtle, and her husband, Jean Piccard—work that laid the groundwork for human space flight. When Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry named The Next Generation captain Jean-Luc Picard, it was a nod to Jean Piccard but can be considered a nod to Jeannette, too.

“I didn’t go up with him, he went up with me,” Jeannette quipped in an interview years later. Her husband needed a pilot, and she became one.

The Piccards before their 1934 flight

Jeanette and Jean Piccard in front of their pressurized gondola in 1934.

Jeannette and Jean were partners in science, invention, and engineering. When Jean was hired at the University in 1936 to teach aeronautical engineering, the dean made clear that Jeannette was part of the deal. Bob Gilruth, ’36, the Iron Range native who went on to head the NASA Manned Spaceflight Center in the 1960s, was a graduate student then and remembered her in the classroom with her husband. After Jean’s death in 1963, Gilruth hired Jeannette as a consultant for NASA during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

“She was very bright, had her own doctor’s degree, and was at least half the brains of that family, technical as well as otherwise,” said Gilruth. “She was something. She was good.”

In fact, it was between her two periods of fame that Jeannette Piccard got that doctoral degree in education. And her dissertation wasn’t about either science or religion, but housing—specifically, housing for married graduate students at the U.

Her marks in all areas were connected by her powerful intelligence and spiritual life. Piccard was driven by a calling that guided her discovery.

Serenity in the Stratosphere

It was serenity that Jeannette described as the peak of her stratospheric experiences in open-air as well as pressurized gondolas. She was the first woman officially licensed to pilot balloons, an assignment she seized and completed in the summer of 1934 as she and Jean prepared for their flight of scientific discovery using a balloon leftover from the Chicago Exposition the year before.

“You go where the wind goes,” she said. “You feel like part of the air. You almost feel like part of eternity, and you just float along.”

Yet it wasn’t passive. Flying a balloon is “more fun than a goat,” she later told a Minnesota reporter. “In a balloon, I lose all sense of earthly necessity.”

That was another characteristic of Jeannette, remembered well by her son, Don Piccard, now of Columbia Heights, who grew up to become a balloonist himself.

“As a mother, she was fun,” says Don. “She liked to play, and she had a good time.” She won a limerick contest on the radio, liked to chop wood in the back yard, and always had projects going.

To Houston and Beyond

In the post-war years, the three Piccard sons finished college and started families and careers—a mechanical engineer in an industrial laboratory, a professor of political science, and an innovator in patents and aeronautics. Jean suffered a stroke in the early 1950s and died in 1963. That was also the year Soviet Valentina Tareshkova officially became the first woman in space, 29 years after Jeannette and many miles higher.

It was on a visit to speak in Minneapolis that one-time grad student Robert Gilruth, by then at NASA, saw Jeannette in the audience and recruited her to Houston.

In her new job as a consultant for NASA, Jeanette traveled around the country, speaking to students and community groups about the space program with energy, passion, and humor. After the first spacewalk by astronaut Ed White in June 1965, she often concluded her presentations with a film of that walk that continued to thrill her. She even ventured to share ideas with Gilruth and saw a few applied, such as the design of a periscope for the man-to-the-moon Apollo spacecraft.

In 1968, she received an Outstanding Alumni Award from the University, and in 1969 she spoke to high school students at Northrop Auditorium just weeks before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July.

In 1970, her post with NASA ended and she was back in Minnesota, where in 1971 she was ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Her final adventure had begun.

Read Jeanette Piccard’s full and fascinating story on the Connect website

Star Power

As a woman in science, Sally Brummel, MEd ’16, has discovered the stories of many pioneering women across the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Take Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-79) who discovered what the sun was made of, or astronomer Annie Canon at Harvard (1863-1941), a giant in the classification of stars. Henrietta Levitt was an astrophysicist who worked as a “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory in the 1920s.

The striking thing, says Brummel, is that “these women didn’t give up and go home.” As for aeronautical pioneer Jeannette Piccard, ’42, first woman in the stratosphere, “she had to make a leap,” Brummel says.

Her colleague Sarah Komperud, MEd ’12, adds, “[Jeannette Piccard] must have been very self-motivated … she had to know her own abilities.”

Brummel and Komperud in the planetarium construction zone

Sally Brummel, left, and Sarah Komperud donned hard hats while the planetarium theater was under construction at the new Bell Museum.

Brummel and Komperud are leaders, too. Both are alumni of the master of education program in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Today they are two of four full-time staff members for the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium at the University’s Bell Museum—manager and programs coordinator, respectively.

Brummel recently wrote One Giant Leap, an original Bell production celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, which Piccard worked so hard to make possible. The museum’s Year of Apollo: The Moon and Beyond continues into the fall, celebrating the past and looking forward to a new era of inspiration, innovation, and discovery.

Komperud teaches astronomy across a range of programs including a traveling planetarium, called the ExploraDome, and Skynet Scholars, where middle schoolers learn to operate research-grade telescopes through the internet.

Read more about Sally, Sarah, and the next generation of STEM education