After rigorous testing in 1961, a small group of skilled female pilots are asked to step aside when only men are selected for spaceflight.
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Back in the 1960s when NASA were planning on getting people into space they ran various programs to select the finest astronauts for the job – or so we are told. In actual fact, there were a number of candidates that out-performed the successful ones but only failed on some arbitrary rules that were put in place – specifically, rules that were impossible for women to meet. These high-performing women became known as the Mercury 13 and are the subject of this Netflix Original Documentary.
During the original program one of the doctors involved, Dr. Lovelace, decided to start, and fund, his own program where he carried out the same tests on female pilots who wanted to be astronauts. The women involved were Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Janet Dietrice, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick (later Ratley), Jane “Janey” Hart (née Briggs), Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrle (later Allison, then Woltman), Gene Nora Stumbough (later Jessen), Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan (née Hamilton, later Truhill), Bernice Steadman (née Trimble). They were aged between 23 and 41 at the time.
“Mercury 13” takes the form of talking heads interspersed with archive footage as well as some great aerial shots of the pilots. We hear how the women in the Mercury 13 were experienced pilots with thousands of flying hours under each of their belts. We also learn more about their feelings surrounding the sexism in the government, NASA and society in general. Jacqueline Cochrane failed the tests but is still one of the main people in the documentary.
The documentary is as much about women in space as it is about sexist attitudes in the 1960s. Looking at it now, the ‘rules’ as to why women couldn’t be astronauts are laughable – they just make no sense when put into a modern perpsctive. But that was society at the time and it’s clear that the women involved are aware of this. While they obviously didn’t realise their dreams of being astronauts, they know that their experience paved the way for the first female astronauts during the shuttle program years later.
It was very interesting to watch “Mercury 13” – I only have a vague interest in space exploration so was not aware of this story until I saw the trailer. So for me it was all new and very interesting to learn about. You may already know about the Mercury 13 program but even if you do, then there is a good chance that a lot of the archive footage, as well as the interviews, will be new to you. Don’t watch it to get enraged by sexist attitudes, watch it to hear about the stories of these amazing women.
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