In her first act, Jeannette Piccard piloted a balloon in 1934 that climbed into the stratosphere nearly 11 miles over Lake Erie. She became the first woman to reach such heights — setting an altitude record that lasted nearly 30 years.
Her next act brought Piccard even closer to God. In the 1970s, she became the first woman ordained as an Episcopal priest — leading to an assistant pastorship in St. Paul.
Both Piccard’s space exploration and faith work proved to be as controversial as they were historic.
Corporate sponsors Goodyear and Dow Chemical balked upon learning she would steer the balloon’s gondola in 1934 while her husband, Jean Felix Piccard, conducted scientific research. When the Piccards next turned to a benefactor synonymous with footing explorers’ bills, they were rebuked.
“The National Geographic Society would have nothing to do with sending a woman — a mother — in a balloon into danger,” said Jeannette, who raised three sons as she reached and then preached to the heavens.
In 1974, four decades after soaring in her balloon, Piccard joined the so-called Philadelphia 11 — the first group of women ordained as Episcopal priests. Because she was the oldest at 79, Piccard went first during a ceremony considered irregular because it was conducted by retired bishops. When national Episcopal leader Bishop John Allin asked her to call off the service, Piccard told him: “Sonny, I’m old enough to have changed your nappies.”
Her granddaughter and fellow Episcopal priest, the Rev. Kathryn Piccard, told the New York Times: “She wanted to expand the idea of what a respectable lady could do.”
One of nine children, Jeannette Piccard was born in Chicago in 1895 — the daughter of a leading orthopedic doctor. She would move to Switzerland, Boston and other places, but Piccard spent her last 45 years in Minnesota.
Although her religious pursuits would have to wait, they actually predated her ballooning. When she was 11, her mother, Emily, sat by her bed one night and asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“When I said I wanted to be a priest, poor darling, she burst into tears and ran out of the room,” Piccard recalled.
Piccard studied philosophy and psychology at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s school near Philadelphia. Then she earned a master’s degree in chemistry in 1919 at the University of Chicago. The same year, she married Jean Felix Piccard, a Swiss-born chemistry professor at the school — 11 years her senior. Their marriage would last 43 years.
Jean’s twin, Auguste Piccard, was a world-famous balloonist who reached the stratosphere in the early 1930s. After teaching for seven years in Switzerland, Jean landed a job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught Jeannette to pilot a balloon.
She became the first U.S. woman to earn a balloonist’s license in 1934, in Dearborn, Mich., with auto mogul Henry Ford offering a hangar at the airport that bore his name. One day, flight pioneer Orville Wright stopped by to watch one of her ascents.
High-altitude ballooning was risky because human lungs need help above 40,000 feet and the hydrogen used to lift the balloons is flammable.
“Even if one were afraid to die,” Jeannette once said, “there is so much of interest in a stratosphere trip that one does not have time to be afraid. It is too absorbing.”
Of her six trips into the stratosphere, which starts about 7 miles up, the big one — 57,579 feet or 10.9 miles — came on Oct. 23, 1934.
Taking off from Dearborn with 45,000 spectators looking on, Jeannette handled the controls of their balloon, christened the “Century of Progress,” for the entire eight-hour ride — steering through clouds and landing 300 miles away near Cadiz, Ohio.
That ascent fell more than a half-mile shy of the altitude record set a year earlier by a male Navy commander. But it made history for women, despite ending with a thud. Jeannette landed the gondola is some elm trees in Ohio. The balloon suffered a serious tear, while Jean suffered a fractured rib and ankle.
“What a mess!” Jeannette told Time magazine. “I wanted to land on the White House lawn.”
On the lecture tour that followed, they met John Akerman, an aeronautics professor at the University of Minnesota. Jean landed a teaching job at the U and Jeannette earned a doctoral degree in education and served in the Minnesota Office of Civil Defense during World War II.
After the war, they served briefly as General Mills consultants. Jean died in 1963 on his 79th birthday. But his widow wasn’t done contributing to the space program.
Robert Gilruth, a Minnesota native and University of Minnesota student and colleague of the Piccards, became NASA’s first director at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. He hired Jeannette as a consultant from 1964-1970.
After that, Piccard started chasing her childhood religious dreams. Her 1974 ordination was finally recognized in 1977 and she served as a hospital chaplain and an assistant pastor in St. Paul.
Piccard died of cancer in 1981 in Minneapolis at 86. Her claim as the first woman in space lasted 29 years. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova outdid her in 1963, orbiting the planet solo 48 times.
Don Piccard, Jeannette’s sole surviving son, remembers meeting Tereshkova at an international aeronautics conference. He explained to the Soviet space pioneer his relationship to the high-altitude female balloonist from the 1930s.
“I know very well who your mother is,” Tereshkova told him. “I am honored for her greeting and send her all my love.”
Don, 90, said, he “leaned in and gave her a buzz on the cheek.”
An accomplished balloonist himself, Don still lives in his parents’ house on the Minneapolis side of Mississippi River Blvd. He was 8 when Orville Wright gave him a hearty handshake at one of his mom’s ascents.
“I shook the hand of the first man to fly and kissed the cheek of first Russian woman to orbit the Earth,” he said. “That’s a life span.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.