So … cute, charismatic astro-dreamboat John Glenn wasn’t so cute to some people. In particular, a group of thirteen highly qualified and thoroughly tested pilots who were canned from the space program because they had boobies. If the true-events-based (and supremely scripted) Hidden Figures had you both dismayed (because damn it) and cheering (because we’re finally hearing about them) at the story of three behind-the-scenes Black women who were instrumental in NASA’s efforts to put white dudes in space, you’re going to want to check out Netflix’s latest in a string of home run documentaries, Mercury 13.
May I have a sidebar? When I was 24, I jumped out of an airplane at an altitude of 15,000 feet. I won’t beat around the bush: I did it because the trip was organized by this guy I had a crush on at work. I am not an adrenaline junkie and had no innate desire to experience 70 seconds of terminal velocity. It turned out to be thrilling but not something I needed to experience twice, and I cannot fathom actually wanting to be a pilot, or an astronaut.
You know who could, though? My grandma, a farm girl of southern Minnesotan Danish immigrant stock. She had a neighbor with a barnstormer who taught her how to fly it. My grandfather said he found the whole idea of skydiving terrifying. Grandma’s response? “Nah. Easy.”
Yeah, I have a point. Thirteen women pilots proved, and proved, and proved, that they were at least equal to and in many ways more fit than their male counterparts to join the space race in the early 1960s, and the brass at NASA couldn’t wrap their massive rocket-scientist brainiums around the idea that a woman’s place might be in the kitchen and the Apollo missions. John Glenn sneered about it on national television. Some of these women are no longer with us, but several very much are, and we get their testimony firsthand, along with a ton of archival footage from the early days of the space program. In some cases, their children speak for them, often poignantly and with great perspicacity. The style of the film is sleek, linear, unadorned—to its benefit, because this is one of those stories that is all about the story. And the story is, as one of the pilots quipped, simply this: “Well, there was not Good Ol’ Gals Network.”
Sputnik and Laika and Yuri Gegarin all in-your-faced NASA with massive technological and propagandistic triumphs, so after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman cosmonaut while the United States was busy claiming that having a menstrual cycle somehow rendered you incapable of orbital flight—well, you’d think they’d wise up. But you’d be wrong. In a press conference, when asked about whether, in light of the Soviet Union’s successful woman cosmonaut mission, NASA now believed a woman could participate in the space program, the brilliantined, drawling man at the mic comments: “I do. I think we could have used a woman in the second sub-orbital flight, the right kind of woman. We could have flown her instead of the chimpanzee.” The room erupts in gales of laughter.
Seriously, what is our problem? If you look at, oh, say about 105 years (for instance) of American history, there is one narrative that emerges: We Do Not Learn from Our Experiences. The women in this program? They learned. Each in her own way. The issue of whether women were fit for consideration in the space program went all the way to Congress, where one woman is shown being asked about whether she really believed she could handle space flight. “I’ve given birth to and am raising eight children, and still managed to log over 2,000 hours in the air, Sir. So … yes.” The tone is unmistakable: “Compared to that, going into orbit would be like a Club Med vacation.” Jaquelyn Cochran, one of the primary pilots of the Mercury 13, ended up speaking against women in space, to the dismay and shock of her colleagues. We’ll never know how much impact that had or didn’t have on the outcome, but the project was canned and those pilots fell into the shadows of history. Unless women in aviation and aerospace tech is a specialty subject of yours, you probably don’t recognize many, if any, of their names.
The documentary does veer into a disorienting sequence where the footage of the moon landing and its aftermath are altered to make it seem women astronauts are doing it, that their names are on the banners, that their voices are speaking from the lunar surface. It takes you a second to realize it’s a trick because there’s been so much archival footage, some of it very iconic, and the effect is really startling. Depending on your perspective it might startle you in a number of different ways. It could provoke anger at the all-too-predictable systemic shutdown and diminishment of women’s equal rights. As a child of the seventies, I don’t especially have that reaction—being a feminist in the sense of believing men and women were (at least) equals and deserved equal rights, equal pay and equal opportunity? That went without saying in my house. I was also raised by a mother who warned me often, and not incorrectly, that sometimes the greatest manipulators, betrayers and silencers of women were other women, and I think most intelligent and outspoken females do learn by the time they’re through middle school that psychological violence against females by their own female peers is indeed real. And I think that’s where the other pilots’ reaction to Cochran’s actions got to me. The film didn’t make me feel infuriated or outraged, but it was desperately sad to see these vibrant, tough, extremely bright and utterly fearless women sentenced to spend the rest of their lives wondering, Yes but what if?
The first female pilot of the space shuttle, Eileen Collins, was selected for her groundbreaking mission in 1990, thirty years after the Mercury 13 proved by every imaginable measure that women would be at least as competent as men in space, and in many cases more so. (The Mercury 13 endured 8- to10-hour sensory deprivation sessions and reported that it was “relaxing.” On average, men were hallucinating by hour three.) In an address before President Clinton, she quickly noted that she would not be there without the Mercury 13, and upon landing she asked them to stand and made sure everyone heard their names.
Mercury 13 is a small, spare film about a big subject and it manages to compress a hell of a lot of subtext into those minutes. The editorial balance between talking heads and visions from the past is fantastic, and it’s spot-on stylistically. Honestly, if this film doesn’t grab you by the heart, check your pulse to make sure you still have one.
Directors: David Sington, Heather Walsh
Release Date: Mercury 13 is now available on Netflix.
Amy Glynn writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction. She is content to let others race for space.