MERCURY 13: MISSING THE BOAT
New on Netflix, Mercury 13 is the story of a missed opportunity. Thirteen female pilots prove they are fit to be astronauts. But NASA never sends them to space. The one-hour documentary juxtaposes archival footage with fresh interviews of two of the women from the “Mercury 13”—Wally Funk and Sarah Ratley—as well as Janey Hart’s daughter and Bernice Steadman’s husband.
Jackie Lovelace Johnson recounts how her father, physician William Randolph Lovelace, began the programme in 1959. As head of NASA’s Life Sciences department, he’d developed a series of rigorous tests for the selection of astronauts. Then, influenced by iconic pilot Jackie Cochran, he began privately testing female pilots to see if they’d make the cut. After three phases of oddball tests, Lovelace selected 13 women who came to be known as the Mercury 13. But when NASA got wind of this, it shut down the programme. It was never revived, and NASA did not send its first female astronaut into space until Sally Ride in 1983—20 years after the Russians sent Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963.
Opposition to the Mercury 13 came from all corners. Though the sexual revolution was under way, men were convinced they were cooler under pressure. Besides, military regulations prevented women from flying fighter jets, so they weren’t eligible to be astronauts. Although Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart fought hard to change policy by presenting their case to Congress, Cochran’s shocking opposition to the mission seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.
Eileen Collins, the first American woman to pilot and command the space shuttle, offers a stirring tribute to the Mercury 13. But the real highlight of the documentary is the comment by astronaut Gordon Cooper after the Russians sent Tereshkova into space. Maybe we should have sent a woman on the Mercury-Atlas, he says, instead of a chimpanzee.