The human computers of “Hidden Figures” aren’t the only “forgotten women” of the early days of America’s space program.
While the names of the Mercury Seven, the crack fighter-jocks/test pilots turned astronauts are chiseled into history, with monuments for them prominent on America’s “Space Coast” (Titusville, Cocoa Beach, Fla.), the “Mercury 13” were a shadow group, not utterly unknown at the time, but almost erased from history as the space program’s story has been told.
“Mercury 13” is an inspiring, brisk remembrance of this group, the best female pilots America could muster in the late 1950s, women summoned for testing by the same physician/scientist NASA put in charge of drawing up physical and mental tests to see which male pilots would be best suited for space travel.
Dr. Randy Lovelace’s Lovelace Clinic, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recruited women like Sarah Ratley, “Wally” Funk, Jerrie Cobb and Janie Hart to come in, and without NASA knowing about it, go through the same rigorous regimen that John Glenn, Gordon Cooper and the Mercury Seven endured.
Co-directors Heather Walsh and David Sington trace this story from the brassy, older and outspoken Jacqueline Cochran, a Florida born airplane racer who went on to run the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. She’s the Chuck Yeager of this version of “The Right Stuff,” the best of the best. And the moment we hear one of the pilots she inspired describe first hearing her over her airplane radio, we know why she never got to space. An overheard conversation between an Ohio air traffic control tower and Cochran leads to an attempt to re-direct her to the runway she is supposed to land on.
“‘I’ll land on any goddamned runaway I like,” she drawls back. No, not NASA material.
But the women whom she inspired earned their wings, endured the “image” America was comfortable with as far as women in the cockpit were concerned (a dress, pearls, high heels, dabbing makeup on before take-off) and prejudice and discovered that they were every bit as good as their male counterparts in many regards, superior in others.
If you remember NASA history, or “The Right Stuff” version of it, you’ll recall the isolation tank endurance contests the Mercury Seven faced. The women rode out their time alone in a breeze.
As Janie Hart, a Senator’s wife and the only mother in the Mercury 13 cracked, “With eight kids at home, you’d want to go to the moon, too.”
Sexism is the easy answer about why we haven’t heard much about these women. When NASA got wind of Good Dr. Lovelace’s experiments, they kiboshed the whole thing. But the 13 got a Congressional hearing (a Senator’s wife can make that happen), TV interviews and a lot of attention when the brakes were put on this project in 1961.
And then the Russians put a female skydiver into orbit in 1963, and made us look like chauvinist boobs. Gordon Cooper’s crack that “We could have sent a woman” on an earlier test flight, one “flown” by a test chimp, is so cringe-worthy as to actually be hilarious, if not in the way he intended.
The film’s shortcomings stem from its narrow point of view. We hear from the surviving pilots, or their widow or children. No outside historian, no expert on the era is here to correct the “Looking at the past through the values of the present” error in the thinking. No woman at the time was allowed to be a military pilot, few if any women had flight hours in jets, NASA didn’t need the funding-drawing distraction of a “battle of the sexes” PR game playing out while it was focused on beating the Russians to the Moon. “Limited opportunities” worked against them. But less so on those who followed.
What’s inspiring is what these women did with their frustration. They got certified to fly jets. They took jobs with major aviation companies. One went on to co-found the National Organization for Women.
And decades later, the “Mercury 13” started getting their due in the ’90s, when the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle took off. This illuminating, artful and inspiring film completes that process.
A gender is a terrible thing to waste. Especially in space.
MPAA Rating: unrated, mild profanity
Cast: Wally Funk, Gene Nora Jessen, Sarah Ratley, Myrtle Cagle, Eileen Collins
Credits:Directed by David Sington, Heather Walsh. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:18