Akron school teacher Jean Hixson could have been America’s first person in space if NASA had just listened to reason. Instead, fellow Ohioan John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.
Hixson — or some other woman of the so-called “Mercury 13” — should have gotten the nod. Common sense dictated the choice of a woman instead of a man. Studies showed that women could handle heat better, could better stand the mental and physical strain, were less prone to heart attacks — and were less expensive to send into space (they weighed less, and required less oxygen and food). Instead, NASA bowed to popular sentiment and banished Hixson and the 12 other women from the space program.
Hixson saw that as enormous waste. In 1973, she told an Akron Beacon Journal reporter, “I think they (NASA) should send up the person who can bring back the best and most information. It’s a great waste of our country’s mentality the way women are weighted away from this area because of what people think.”
Hixson never really fit into what people thought women should be doing in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s or 1960s.
Born in Hoopeston, Ill., Hixson always wanted to fly. She started flight lessons when she was 16 and earned her pilot’s license when she was 18. During World War II, Hixson trained with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in Sweetwater, Texas, and flew the B-25 twin-engine bomber as an engineering air force pilot. She also ferried planes between manufacturers and Air Force bases.
After the war — and the WASP was disbanded, Hixson was offered a chance to join the Air Force Reserves as a non-flying second lieutenant assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton; but Hixson continued to fly. In 1957, she became the second woman to break the sound barrier — over Lake Erie.
Even as she continued as an officer in the Air Force Reserve, Hixson started another career. She returned to school, The University of Akron, to get her teaching degree. She specialized in mathematics and science and learned a second language — Russian. Hixson became a third grade teacher in Akron’s public schools, teaching at Crouse, Seiberling and Erie Island elementaries. She also gave astronomy lessons at Firestone High School. Hixson’s name was always associated with aviation. Although she was teaching in Akron’s public schools, Hixson was also participating in transcontinental races and piloting helicopters, hot-air balloons and even the Goodyear blimp. It was little wonder that Hixson became known as the “supersonic schoolmarm.”
It was also little wonder that she would be invited to be a part of an experiment. In 1960, she was invited to participate in a battery of tests to assess women’s fitness as potential astronauts. In summer 1961, Hixson went to Albuquerque, N.M., for a series of astronaut tests, the same tests that John Glenn and the male astronauts had endured.
From all accounts, Hixson passed all the tests and, indeed, was judged by her peers as the “best of the crew.” Had she been allowed to continue, no doubt she would have received enormous publicity from the Beacon Journal‘s aviation expert, nationally known writer Helen Waterhouse. But even Waterhouse could not save the appointment when NASA denied all plans to send women into space, a stance supported by astronaut-in-training John Glenn. “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized….It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” Glenn told a congressional hearing.
Hixson was out. She returned to Akron where she returned to her work as a school teacher, flight instructor and Air Force Reserves officer.
Jean Hixson died in Akron in 1984, shortly after the first woman, Sally Ride, went up into space.
–Kathleen L. Endres