In the 2016 film Hidden Figures, audiences learned about too-long-untold story of the the black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race era of the 1950s and ’60s, playing an integral role in launching the first American astronauts into space. Now, another bit of Space Race history is getting its exposure in the form of a Netflix documentary. The film, Mercury 13, sheds light on the first women to be trained for potential space flight. Though they never made it to the stars, their individual journeys broke barriers despite the discrimination that ran rampant in the fields of aviation and space travel. At long last, their stories are being told.
Mercury 13 delves deep into the program, documenting what the women experienced and the hurdles they had to overcome to get as far as they did. Here are eight of the major things we learned from the documentary.1. Jacqueline Cochran led the charge for women in aviation.
The documentary spends a lot of time on Jacqueline Cochran, a self-made career woman who rose through poverty to find success in cosmetics. She took flying lessons in the early 1930s, and after marrying wealthy industrialist Floyd Bostwick Odlum in 1936, she used his influence to sell her lipsticks and continue flying. Cochran quickly became known as the best female pilot in the United States, and her influence opened the door for other women in aviation. Cochran is referenced throughout Mercury 13 as a source of inspiration for many of the female pilots, and as a pioneer in the field… even though she later backtracked on some of that progress. (More on that in a bit.)
2. A physician named Dr. Lovelace launched the first program to train women for space.
William Randolph Lovelace II was an American physician and founder of the Lovelace Medical Foundation, which was used to promote the development of medical aerospace technology. He was appointed the chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee of Life Science in 1958, where he was in charge of selecting astronauts for the Mercury program. In 1959, he had the idea to separately train women to see if they were viable candidates for space missions; this “women in space” study was financed by Cochran and Bostwick Odlum, who served on the Lovelace Foundation’s board. His daughter, Jackie Lovelace Johnson, appears in Mercury 13 to talk about her father’s contributions.
3. Twenty-five female pilots were tested for the Mercury program; only 13 made the cut.
Lovelace and Cochran made a list of female pilots they knew to start testing them for space. The first was a woman named Jerrie Cobb, one of Mercury 13‘s most outspoken heroes. When asked in an interview clip from 1959 why she thought it was important for women to go to space, she answered: “It’s the same thing as, ‘Is there a need for men in space?’ I mean, if we’re going to send a human being into space, we should send the one most qualified, and in certain areas women have a lot to offer, in other areas men do. I think we ought to use both.”
Cobb recruited fellow pilot Wally Funk, who is featured as a talking head in the documentary. In total, 25 women were tested for the program, all of them distinguished pilots, and only 13 women made it into the final study group.
4. The women were subjected to bizarre physical and psychological tests.
There were three phases to testing. First, the women’s bodies were put through the ringer to see how they might work in the outer atmosphere; they were x-rayed, given enemas every morning, and had water injected into their ears to measure reactions to vertigo. The second phase tested their psychological strength. They were put in sensory deprivation tanks, which, according to the documentary, women were better able to withstand than the men undergoing similar tests; Jerrie Cobb said she broke the record, lasting a total of nine-and-a-half hours in the tank—she even said she enjoyed the experience! The third phase would have been flight training at Pensacola, but the women received word shortly before it was set to begin that the United States Navy would now allow the use of its facilities for an unofficial project.
5. NASA rejected the initiative to put women into space, so they took their case to Congress.
Frustrated that their tests were disrupted, two members of the Mercury 13 went to Congress to testify against NASA on the basis of discrimination. Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart, the wife of a Senator from Michigan, both testified, the latter using her political knowledge to drive the case. The women argued that, as women, they weren’t allowed the same opportunities as men, and that there were aviation rules that prevented them from meeting qualifications. (For instance, women weren’t allowed to fly military aircrafts, which was mandatory experience for a NASA astronaut training.)
6. Jackie Cochran turned against the Mercury 13 during their hearing, which killed their chance of going to space.
Cochran didn’t make it into the Mercury 13, which might have had something to do with her undermining Cobb and Hart’s testimonies. In a statement, she wrote that putting women into space would be too costly and have a negative effect on marriages in the United States. Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, the first and second American men to orbit Earth, also testified against the Mercury 13 program. “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” Glenn said.
Together, their opinions were enough to sway Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign a letter terminating the Mercury 13 program. In the documentary, Lovelace Johnson criticizes Cochran’s decision, saying that she doesn’t believe she was a feminist and only had her self-interest in mind. (Cochran allegedly regretted her decision.)
7. After the hearing, a radicalized Janey Hart became a founding member of the National Organization of Women.
All of the women in Mercury 13 were revolutionary, but if the documentary has one standout, it may be Janey Hart. A mother of eight, she was thoroughly unfazed by the potential perils of space travel. When asked by a reporter why she wanted to go to the moon, she supposedly responded, “With eight kids, you’d want to go to the moon, too.”
When NASA shut down the Mercury 13 program, she grew angry and radical. She channeled that anger into political activism, becoming a founding member of NOW: the National Organization of Women, a feminist organization that currently consists of 550 chapters in the United States.
8. NASA didn’t have its first female Shuttle Pilot until 1995.
There’s no doubt the Mercury 13 had a giant impact of the role of women in NASA, but it would take roughly 30 years before the next major change would occur. It happened in 1995, when Eileen Collins became the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle. For her launch, she invited the surviving members of Mercury 13, who were given V.I.P. treatment by NASA, a small step toward finally giving the women due recognition for their hard work.
The documentary Mercury 13 goes way deeper into each of these points, and much more. Catch it on Netflix this Friday, April 20.
Main image: NASA
Additional images: NASA, WikiCommons/ State Library and Archives of Florida
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