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Kathryn Sullivan was the first American woman to perform a spacewalk (Image credit: NASA)

Meet the women who should’ve been the first astronauts in Mercury 13

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May 7, 2018

Many people are familiar with the story of the Mercury 7, the nation’s first group of astronauts. A crop of picture-perfect (at least on the outside) military test pilots, these men were the first Americans to go to space.

There were three space programs that were vital to our journey to the moon. The six crewed Mercury flights taught us that people could survive in zero-g. They could operate a spacecraft (though the first astronauts were really just passengers along for a ride). They could perform basic tasks.

The second program, Gemini, is when we learned how to work in space. Thanks to the 10 crewed missions, we studied the effects of long-term space travel on the body (back then, two weeks was considered a long time to spend in space!). We learned how to rendezvous and dock two different spacecraft. We taught ourselves the techniques that would be necessary to go to the moon.

And finally, in Apollo, we did the deed. Over 11 crewed flights of Apollo, we tested out new spacecraft, landed on the moon, drove a buggy on the moon, played golf on the moon, studied moon rocks, and learned a little more about the universe and our place in it.

There were precisely zero women on any of those space flights.

The first women astronauts weren’t accepted to NASA’s astronaut corps until 1978. The first American woman, Sally Ride, flew in space in 1983.

The question is why it took so long. After all, the Russians flew the first woman in space in 1963.

Netflix’s documentary Mercury 13 helps shed some light on that. The film, directed by David Singer and Heather Walsh, focuses on a group of women who came to be known as the Mercury 13 and could have been the first women in space, along with iconic names such as Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and John Glenn.

Credit: Netflix

Back when NASA was selecting its original group of astronauts, it contracted with a private medical facility called the Lovelace Clinic to put the men it had selected through the most rigorous of testing. But Dr. Lovelace had his own agenda, and he decided to test a group of female aviators alongside the men to show that they could pass these tests just as well as the men did.

In fact, the Mercury 13 exceeded the men’s test results.

When NASA got wind of the program, however, it shut everything down. NASA hadn’t been open to women astronauts, regardless of the “There is no discrimination!” banner it hid behind. For starters, when NASA was selecting its initial crop of astronauts, it chose from a group of military test pilots only. By law, women weren’t allowed to be military test pilots. There were certainly women flying as civilian test pilots, as the documentary shows, who had the same skills and expertise as the men who were considered and chosen. But President Eisenhower insisted that the people selected specifically be military test pilots and thus introduced discrimination into the ranks of the astronaut corps.

In the documentary, Mercury 13 member Jerrie Cobb is asked why there’s a need for women in space. Her response is, “Well, it’s the same thing as, ‘Is there a need for men in space?'” A smart answer to a ludicrous question. Without putting too fine a point on it, the documentary also imagines what would have happened if a woman astronaut had been the first to set foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind.” Can you even imagine the uproar?

Credit: Netflix

It’s important that this history is aired out in broad daylight, and that’s just what Mercury 13 is doing. These women were bold and brash, ahead of their time. Their skills qualified them for a job many only dreamed of, but their dreams were dashed because of plain old sexism.

The documentary is well told, putting events in chronological order, and juxtaposing the story of these 13 women against NASA’s early years. It tells these women’s personal stories, what they sacrificed in order to be a part of Lovelace’s program, and how their ambitions were curtailed by NASA’s refusal to even consider their astronaut candidacy. The only real complaint here is that NASA’s side of the story is told through historical footage of astronauts, rather than modern-day interviews with those involved in (or who had knowledge of) refusing the Mercury 13. It would be interesting to see their present take on it, given that the decision hasn’t exactly aged well.

Overall, this is a documentary that is absolutely worth watching. It’s an incredibly important story, and viewers get some catharsis through the focus on Eileen Collins, the first woman to both pilot and command the Space Shuttle. She invited the Mercury 13 to her launch as her guests in order to pay tribute to these women that paved the way for her own success.