MER­CURY 13: MISS­ING THE BOAT

India Today - - LEISURE - —Moeena Halim

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.

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