‘Mercury 13’ Showcases the One Small Step That Might Have Been

Mercury 13 is a new documentary from frequent collaborators David Sington and Heather Walsh, chronicling the relatively unknown story of the women who could have been astronauts during the height of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. We get to hear from many of the women involved, including Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, and Geena Nora Jensen who were all pilots with substantial flight experience, one of the key factors that qualified them for the program. For the ones who could not speak for themselves, their families spoke in their place. Bob Steadman spoke on behalf of his wife B. Steadman, while Jim and Ann Hart spoke on behalf of their mother Janey Hart; both women were also skilled pilots. Jackie Lovelace Johnson spoke on behalf of her father Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II, the man responsible for testing the potential astronauts. We even get to hear a little from Eileen Collins, the first female to pilot the Space Shuttle.

The doc begins with a “what if” scenario involving the Moon Landing. Instead of Neil Armstrong delivering his famous line, we hear the voice of a woman speaking them almost verbatim with a slight change for one key word. This is intercut with the stories about how the deck was stacked against them because of the time period. From there we learn about the early years of women as far as their flying careers are concerned. This is when we’re introduced to Jackie Cochran, the first woman to set many records in the field of flight, and one of the initial twenty five women who were tested in Lovelace’s first trial phase. From there it tells the story in linear fashion starting with the 1957 Russian launch of Sputnik, which sparked the Space Race into being. We also learn that Lovelace did all his tests on the women without NASA’s knowledge, and his goal was to see which group would be best to send into space.

The most interesting aspect of the documentary came from the choice of archive footage the filmmakers used. The introductory interview footage with Jackie Cochran showed the interviewer focusing on Cochran’s husband and her cosmetics business instead of her flight talent. Interviews with Janey Hart were all about her being the mother of eight children and her home and work balance instead of exploring why she qualified as an astronaut. Both women had witty responses to their questions with Cochran saying she was doing just fine before she got married and Janey once remarking that “If you had eight children, you’d want to go to the moon too.” This really highlighted how different, yet not so different, that time period was for women. In fact, women still get asked similar questions from interviewers today. A point the documentary drives home is that the women were better suited for the task of spaceflight than men because of their scores on the physical and psychological tests. The only thing holding them back was NASA, who got wind of the female testing program and shut it down. To make matters worse, the requirements set by NASA to be an astronaut ruled women out almost completely anyway, as women didn’t have the necessary jet flight experience or background in engineering because those options weren’t afforded to them. In some cases they actually had more piloting hours than the men, just not in the right area.

Another interesting element involved the milestones of the Space Race with an emphasis placed on the need for the United States to catch up to the Russians, who were beating them every step of the way. At one point two of the women from the Mercury 13 group testified before Congress to fight for their right to be included in the program. We hear testimony from Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart about the benefits of the program, but Jackie Cochran, who was not chosen to be one of the 13, testified against women’s inclusion because it would make NASA fall further behind, putting the last nail in the coffin. This is especially interesting considering how Cochran is portrayed at the beginning of the documentary as a pioneer. You could feel the sense of betrayal all the women felt to hear her words. We soon learn that the Russians have sent the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space. The women’s frustration that it wasn’t them is palpable.

Overall this documentary is well put together and has a good balance of archive footage and interviews. Plus, it makes interesting use of recreated footage which showcases what it was like for the women in the sensory deprivation tank. These scenes convey the ethereal quality of floating in space. However, the one negative aspect was the lack of representation for one of the women. The voice I wish we had heard more from was Jackie Cochran. Considering her importance within this story, and the amount of criticism she receives here, it would seem only fair that her perspective be more roundly represented. The fact that the filmmakers went to great pains to find representation for the other deceased participants suggests that this was a deliberate omission. Even a card stating that they were unable to find someone to speak for Cochran would have alleviated this issue to some extent.

Mercury 13 brings to light a story that few people know. Despite the acknowledged regret of what could have been with this program, the documentary ends on an uplifting note with the strides that women in the Space Program have made since this time period. If NASA falls into your area of interest, and this story is news to you, it’s worth checking out.

3.5 / 5

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