• ‘Mercury 13’ Review: Grounded Aspirations – Even Though Some of the Women Applicants Out-Performed the Men Candidates, NASA Did Not Use Them

‘Mercury 13’ Review: Grounded Aspirations

While NASA was eager to put a man in space, many women highly qualified for the program were overlooked.

ByDorothy Rabinowitz
April 19, 2018 4:56 p.m.

‘Mercury 13,” a Netflix documentary, tells the story of a group of women, all highly experienced pilots, who thought that they might become part of NASA’s “man in space program”—a project whose very name should have been a warning that this was unlikely.

The men chosen for Project Mercury, begun in 1958, were all military test pilots and would come to be known as the Mercury 7. There was one little-known fact about the Mercury project—women test pilots had been screened as well, 13 of them had qualified, and in some cases the females had done better than the males.

This film concerns the effort of the women pilots later given the chance, as the race with the Soviets grew more heated, to join the space program. They would undergo testing, under a special program, and take the same tests as men.

This is the sort of film that begins modestly—seemingly only a piece of curious history—and grows steadily deeper as it moves to its climax, and that climax is a powerful one.

It’s a work bolstered by archival footage, not to mention the stories of each of the women.

Their accounts of the grueling tests, physical and psychological, they would have to pass to enter the space program are wonderful in their ironies.

Women who had children weren’t supposed to be allowed into the space program. Still, one extraordinarily experienced one, who had, in her busy flying career, managed to have and raise nine of them, took the test anyway and passed.

But neither she nor any of the other female pilots who had qualified would prevail against the opposition from NASA, not to mention various political luminaries.

The long list of opponents preventing them from being accepted into the space program—John Glenn included—is fascinating. You could say the same about virtually everything packed into this hour.


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