The First Woman in Space (It’s Not Who You Think!)

Who is considered the first woman in space?  Did you think of Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova?  Or American astronaut Sally Ride?

What if I told you it was someone else?  And that this woman accomplished her feat in 1934 – more than 80 years ago?

American Jeannette Piccard was the first licensed female balloon pilot in the U.S.  She hoped to become the first woman to reach the Earth’s stratosphere, but met with considerable resistance.  “The National Geographic Society would have nothing to do with sending a woman – a mother – in a balloon into danger,” she said.  Dow Chemical even asked her to take the company’s logo off of her balloon gondola.

Finally, on October 23, 1934 – four months after getting her pilot’s license – Piccard flew her balloon over Lake Erie, accompanied by her husband and a pet turtle.  The balloon attained a record-setting height of 57,579 feet – 10.9 miles – putting the couple into Earth’s stratosphere.

The press declared Piccard “the first woman in space,” and she held this altitude record for almost three decades.  In the 1964, Piccard became a consultant to the director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center.  In 1998, she was posthumously inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame.

But that’s not all.

In 1975, at the age of 79, Jeannette Piccard was ordained as the first female priest in the Episcopal Church.  When the head of the church tried to dissuade her from ordination, Piccard declared, “Sonny, I’m old enough to have changed your nappies.”

Being ordained fulfilled a childhood dream that Piccard had shared with her mother at the age of 11.  “When I said I wanted to be a priest, poor darling, she burst into tears and ran out of the room,” Piccard said of her mother.  “That was the only time I saw my Victorian mother run.”  Piccard served as a priest until her death at the age of 86.

Her granddaughter (also an Episcopalian priest) said of her grandmother, “She wanted to expand the idea of what a respectable lady could do.”

Today, Agilent proudly values diversity in its workforce, and supports initiatives that advance women in technology.  The company and its employees actively participate in industry groups such as the Society of Women Engineers and the Association for Women in Science.

Today’s blog post topic was suggested by Agilent employee Jim Hollenhorst.  Not only did Jim meet Jeannette Piccard (she was 75 and he was in High School), he asked for – and received – an autographed piece of her original 1934 balloon!

Jim Hollenhorst’s souvenir

Jim Hollenhorst’s souvenir


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