Mercury 13 (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Female pilots who could have been astronauts

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Documentary film “Mercury 13”, which is currently available on Netflix, presents a hidden story about a group of remarkable women who could have been astronauts in the 1960s. While they demonstrated well that they were as skillful and experienced as their male counterparts, they were unfairly underestimated and then ignored due to the prevalent sexism of that era, and the documentary makes a sharp point on how things could have been different if they had been allowed to follow their dream and ambition.

After the opening scene which imagines an alternative version of that historical moment on July 20th, 1969, the documentary moves forward to the present and then shows us a meeting among three old women who were the members of Mercury 13, which refers to 13 woman who were selected as candidate astronauts for Project Mercury in April 1959. Although almost 60 years have passed since that time, these three old ladies are still full of spirit, and they and other interviewees in the documentary have each own interesting tale to tell us.

At first, these three old women, Wally Funk, Sarah Ratley, and Rhea Woltman, talk about how they respectively became passionate about aviation. Funk reminisces when she had her first flying experience at the age of 9, and Ratley and Woltman also remember well how exciting and liberating it was to fly high in the sky. Although they faced a gender bias on aviation, they and many other female aviators in US did not care much about that while looking up to their idol Jacqueline Cochran, a trailblazer whose distinguished aviation career surely set a shining example for every aspiring female aviator in the country.

After US went into the World War II in 1941, Cochran founded the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and that was a major breakthrough moment for female aviators in the country. Although they did not fight in the war as officially having no military standing, those female pilots flied newly manufactured fighter planes to military bases, and they were all proud of doing that modest but significant job well for their country. Even after the war was eventually over, most of them were determined to go further with their career, and nothing could stop them.

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And then there came a very good opportunity around the late 1950s. As the Cold War era went on, the rivalry between US and USSR became intense in many fields including space, and then USSR surprised the world in October 1957 with its successful launch of a small communication satellite named Sputnik. Of course, the American government became more motivated to beat USSR in their ongoing space race, and NASA soon began Mercury Program in 1958.

After 8 male astronauts including John Glenn were by NASA selected after a series of physical and psychological tests, Dr. Randy Lovelace, who was the chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, came to have an idea which felt rather unconventional at that time. As a close friend of Cochran, he was well aware of how female aviators can be as good as their male counterparts, so he soon embarked on a small independent research project to see whether female aviators can also be good astronauts.

After gathering 25 women at the beginning, Dr. Lovelace began the phase I of his project, and his female subjects had to go through numerous arduous tests. At one point, the subjects got their inner ear injected with icy water just for checking whether they could endure an extreme condition of low temperature, and that was certainly not a pleasant experience at all.

Around the point where 13 women was selected for the next phase to be executed in Oklahoma, the result of the phase I impressed Lovelace more than expected. The female subjects turned out to be on a par with their male counterparts, and it also looked possible that they were actually more qualified than their male counterparts in several aspects. For example, when one of these women was put into a sensory deprivation tank, she could stay alone inside the tank for no less than 9 hours, and that was surely impressive to say the least.

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However, they soon found themselves blocked by gender bias around the time when Lovelace was ready to begin the Phase III of his study in Pensacola, Florida. As focusing more on the male astronauts of Mercury Program, NASA instructed Lovelace to abort his study, and the female subjects of his study naturally became exasperated and frustrated because of this sudden change. Some of them eventually lobbied the White House and Congress for inclusion of women in the astronaut program, and that resulted in the public hearings before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in July 1962, but, sadly, that only led to more frustration for them.

Nevertheless, the members of Mercury 13 did not give up at all as going their way as before, and they later witnessed how their struggle became the basis for their juniors including Eileen Collins, who was the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle. When she was in front of many reporters, Collins did not forget to mention the members of Mercury 13 and their overlooked contribution, and several members of Mercury 13 were even invited to the launch of a Space Shuttle to be piloted by Collins.

Although I think directors David Sington and Heather Walsh could delve deeper into their human subjects, “Mercury 13” did its job as well as intended within its rather short running time (79 minutes), and it will surely make you reflect on how much things have changed – and why we need more of gender equality even at present. As many people say these days, girls can do anything, and we all should remove their obstacles at least for a better world to come.

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