(2018) Documentary (Netflix) Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jim Hart, Bob Steadman, Ann Hart, Gene Nora Jessen, Jackie Lovelace Johnson, Eileen Collins, Jerrie Cooper, John Glenn, Jacqueline Cochrane, Gus Grissom, Gordo Cooper, Janey Hart, Bernice Steadman, Valentina Tereshkova, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh
There are some who think it is America’s most shining hour. Certainly in the annals of human achievement the American space program’s race to put a human on the surface of the moon has to rank right up there near the top and yet even that inspiring story had some less proud moments entwined in it.
Did you know that there were women who underwent the same rigorous testing that the male astronauts undertook and in some cases actually outscored the men? If you didn’t then join the club, one in which I’m a fellow member. It’s all true though; 25 female aviators were invited to take the astronaut tests of which 13 were able to pass. They became known as the Mercury 13 in reference to the original Mercury 7 astronauts who included Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Gordo Cooper.
They were invited by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to take those tests. Lovelace had founded the Lovelace Clinic at the urging of outspoken aviation pioneer Jackie Cochrane who herself was eager to go into space. Lovelace believed that women were just as capable as men to be astronauts and thought that the prevailing attitude that women weren’t mentally or physically strong enough to handle the rigors of space flight was pure hooey.
The testing wasn’t sanctioned by NASA however and when they found out about it the powers-that-be at the space agency blew a figurative gasket. They ordered that the testing be stopped immediately and the women dismissed. The women weren’t about to take this lying down; they took their fight to Congress where they testified – often eloquently – about their right to explore, to do with their lives as they chose. In the end Lyndon Johnson quietly shut their program down without explanation.
The story is enough to hold your interest. Oddly, the filmmakers do some alternate history building by showing footage of the moon landing with a female voice coming from the astronauts, as if Mercury 13 member Janie Cobb had been the first person to set foot on the moon rather than Neil Armstrong; it comes off as a bit self-indulgent. It really doesn’t add anything to the narrative which I thought was better focused on what was rather than what might have been. The aerial sequences early on were well-filmed however.
Although not all of them are still with us, the interviews with the surviving Mercury 13 are a real pleasure. The ladies are still feisty although by now they’re in their 80s. One of their number, Janey Hart, would go on to become one of the co-founders of the National Organization of Women which would go on to lead the fight for women’s rights. As for the space program, it wasn’t until 1985 that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space (the Russians had sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in 1963) and ten years later Eileen Cooper would become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.
Fittingly, she invited all the surviving Mercury 13 to her launch and the footage of them exulting in the triumph not only of the shuttle but of women’s place in the space program speaks volumes about how necessary this documentary is in the age of #MeToo.
REASONS TO GO: The story is a fascinating one. There’s some nice aerial photography.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s depressing to think that things haven’t changed as much as they should have.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and depictions of sexism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sington and Walsh cut their Space Race teeth by making the acclaimed documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Choosing Signs