Netflix's 'Mercury 13' Finally Gives Women Barred From NASA Their Due

mercury 13
Netflix

Pretty much everyone knows the names John Glenn and Alan Shepard. (And if you aren’t familiar with them and the rest of NASA’s Mercury 7, Leonardo DiCaprio is developing another adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff as a television series.) The original astronauts are undoubtedly deserving heroes, but histories of Project Mercury, the first American effort to put humans in space, have typically overlooked the contributions of the 13 women pilots who tested as candidates but ultimately were deemed unsuited for the actual program because of their gender. They're the lesser-known but crucially important figures finally getting their due in the new Netflix documentary, Mercury 13.

The film chronicles the tale of these would-be spacewomen from the days of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) during World War II to their time as FLATs (First Lady Astronaut Trainees), when they were studied and cultivated by famed Mercury doctor William Randolph Lovelace II. The story continues through the program’s abrupt termination and the subsequent Congressional hearing on NASA’s gender discrimination for selecting only men as astronauts.

Directed by Heather Walsh and David Sington, the latter of who previously made an award-winning documentary on the Apollo missions In the Shadow of the Moon, Mercury 13 is relatively brief, running only 78 minutes, and unfortunately, rather light in its storytelling. The documentary showcases interviews with the surviving members of the titular group, including Wally Funk and Rhea Woltman (nee Hurrle), as well as the husband and children of others, and eventual first female shuttle commander Eileen Collins. The film is completely anecdotal, which results in a film that's often more of a human-interest piece than a deep history lesson.

mercury 13
Netflix

We are fortunate to have the first-hand accounts, of course. Only seven of the 13 are still alive (an eighth passed away during the making of the film), and of them, only four appear to offer testimonials of their experiences. They're sometimes reserved in the details of their testing, modestly referring to the extent of their physical experimentation. Very little of this talking head material provides substantial record of the program, but together the subjects paint a broad picture that is pointed enough in its objective to duly spotlight these figures and how they paved the way for Collins, Sally Ride, and the rest of the women born late enough to come up during times more interested in gender equality.

Because Mercury 13 is so character-focused, the film easily inspires consideration of the inevitable narrative version from Hollywood. Even without the documentary benefitting from a kinship with the recent hit movie Hidden Figures, about the African-American women mathematicians who worked behind the scenes of Project Mercury, this effort is immediately empowering. There’s not much to Mercury 13 beyond simple synopsis, but its very existence sheds light on the inspirational true story and its relevance. Many scenes hint at extraordinarily dramatic, real-life moments, particularly with a climactic twist involving Cochran that would have greater emotional effect if it had been performed instead of told.

The documentary record is obviously valuable as a platform for the women who had been cut out of the mainstream historical record to speak about their participation. In that sense, it's a respectful, necessary tribute to forgotten heroes. While Mercury 13 concludes with a montage of women astronauts -- a commemoration of the legacy the FLATs -- we're left to wonder about how far we’ve actually come in the more than half century since the program was dismantled. Just this week a woman airline captain, a former US Navy fighter pilot, landed a Southwest flight with a blown engine, and most of the early media coverage blindly assumed that a man was at the controls. Films like Mercury 13 are significant opportunities to reflect on the progress there still is to be done for gender equality compared to the feat of putting humans on the moon.

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Christopher Campbell is a freelance film editor and critic, and the founder of the documentary review site Nonfics. Follow him for opinions of all sorts of movies @thefilmcynic.