You’ve heard of the Mercury 7. They were America’s first astronauts: the first to sit atop a rocket and get shot into space, the first to experience zero gravity, the first to orbit our planet. They were the subject of the multiple-Oscar-winning film The Right Stuff, based on the bestselling book of the same name. They were global celebrities for their exploits in the 1960s and remain national heroes to this day.
The Mercury 7 were all men.
You’ve probably never heard of the Mercury 13. (I’m a bit of a space buff, and I hadn’t.) They were tested for their suitability for space flight by Dr. Randy Lovelace, the physician who developed those tests for NASA. Lovelace believed the 13 were even better suited than the 7. But NASA said, basically, “No freakin’ way.”
The Mercury 13 were all women.
I do not ever want to hear again that “diversity” is a scam and “it should just be the best person for the job.” I do not ever want to hear again that the reason so many fields of human endeavor are so dominated by men is simply because women aren’t interested in taking them on. I mean, we know that’s all the most unmitigated pile of misogynistic bullshit, but how many times does it have to be unquestionably refuted before it stops getting trotted out? Because once again, in the essential new documentary Mercury 13, we learn — relearn! rediscover! — that women were interested in becoming astronauts and women were qualified and women were ready, eager, excited to embark on this grand adventure… and the women were shot down for no reason other than pure sexism.
Via amazing vintage footage as well as interviews with the surviving members of the Mercury 13, directors David Sington (In the Shadow of the Moon) and Heather Walsh (her directorial debut) profile the group, their derring-do, and the public battle they fought to be allowed to stand alongside the male astronaut candidates. They went before Congress in 1962 to argue for their proper places at NASA! (Spoiler: They lost.) I can’t believe I had never heard about this before.
The Mercury 13 are: Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Marion and Janet Dietrich (they were twins), Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Janey Hart, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrle, Gene Nora Stumbough, Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan, and Bernice Steadman. Jerrie Cobb? Wally Funk?! They even sound like astronauts! And to hear them say, with sighs for the opportunities they never got, things like “I could have done anything they [the guys] did” is to become enraged all over again at how women are sidelined in our culture.
In fact, the most powerful aspect of Mercury 13 is its vision of this: What if the first person to walk on the Moon had been a woman? What if Janey Hart had been the one getting ticker-tape parades and being celebrated as a pioneer of great and astounding human deeds? What might the world look like now if we had stopped denying women’s talents and ambitions and started embracing them instead?
We still don’t know the answer to that, and it’s infuriating.