In the 1960s, 13 women were tested as potential astronauts (and in many ways bested the men) but never made it to space.
In the 1960s, 13 women were tested as potential astronauts (and in many ways bested the men) but never made it to space. (Photo: Netflix)

One Small Step for a Woman, One Giant Leap for Mankind

‘Mercury 13,’ a new Netflix documentary, tells the true story of astronaut-qualified women who were blocked from the space program in the 1960s—and imagines a world in which they’d been the face of exploration

In the 1960s, 13 women were tested as potential astronauts (and in many ways bested the men) but never made it to space.
Kat Eschner

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In the grainy black and white footage of a 1961 television interview, a tall, sophisticated pilot stands beside one of her colleagues as an off-screen male interviewer asks her whether a woman astronaut could have a family. Janey Hart responds that she has been able to log 2,000 hours of flying time as a pilot while raising eight children. “I don’t think the family life has been sacrificed one bit,” she says authoritatively. The mask drops a little when the interviewer asks about the possibility of a woman astronaut reaching the space program’s ultimate prize, the moon: “With eight children, you’d want to go to the moon, too.”  

Hart and the woman standing beside her, Jerrie Cobb, could have gone to the moon, had they lived in a different era. In postwar America, they were among a group of women tested in a privately funded program as potential candidates to go to space. These late 1950s housewives, known as the Mercury 13, were given the same tests NASA was using for male pilots—some of whom became the first astronauts, like John Glenn and Alan Sheppard. The women, though in some ways they outperformed the male pilots, never made it to space. 

Mercury 13, a Netflix Original from British documentarians Heather Walsh and David Sington, shares some of those women’s firsthand accounts. Many of the Mercury 13 who are still alive participated in the documentary, while the descendants of others—such as Hart’s children—also participated. Missing from the roster, though, were Jerri Truhill, Myrtle Cagle, and Jerrie Cobb herself. No explanation is given for their absence.  

Though their story has never before been given such a mainstream treatment, it’s more than dramatic enough to warrant one. The FLATS (First Lady Astronaut Trainees), as they were initially known, were a mixed group of skilled aviators recruited about two years before President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech and almost a year before cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Male astronaut candidates were being tested around the same time, but scientists didn’t know how humans would react to space or even if it would be possible for them to survive there and make observations. (Laika, the first dog in space, made her doomed voyage in 1957 showing that mammals could survive in space, given oxygen and correct temperature control.) In the same moment, some scientists questioned if women, who were on average smaller and lighter, wouldn’t be better candidates for spaceflight. Testing the most qualified women—meaning pilots, in the thinking of the time—was a natural next step. 

“It was a good old boy network, and there was no such thing as a good old girl network.”

After 25 women were recruited by other female aviators or by word-of-mouth, 13 were chosen to undergo astronaut testing. All of the women were commercial pilots, and some, like Hart, had private licenses and competed in “powder puff derbies,” all-women aviation competitions. Many of those pilots flew in heels and gloves, the picture of Betty Draper-style midcentury propriety, as footage included in the documentary shows. The oldest, Hart, was in her early 40s, while the youngest, Wally Funk, was 23. With the exception of Hart, none had children. All were white. 

What they shared was the potential for spaceflight. From 1960 to 1961, the women traveled in pairs or alone to NASA doctor William Randolph Lovelace II’s private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they underwent a week of tests. The tests were rigorous and often unpleasant, including daily enemas and having vertigo induced by having ice water squirted in their ears. Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Funk also underwent isolation tank testing. Lovelace was in charge of administering the same preliminary tests to Glenn and the other male astronaut trainees, and he spearheaded the FLATs program because he was genuinely curious whether women could succeed in space on the same grounds as men. He found that the women performed better in at least one of the tests—isolation—and as well as the male candidates in many of the others, including basic fitness tests.

But as the women themselves identify, there was no way they were actually getting to space. “I think we all know what actually happened,” Funk says in an early scene. “It was a good old boy network, and there was no such thing as a good old girl network.” The documentary follows the program from its hopeful beginnings in 1960 to its painful end in 1962. But what drives the narrative and highlights the injustice of it all are the space milestones that occurred during those years, which the women themselves watched. Like May 1961, when Sheppard became the first American in space. Meanwhile, the Mercury 13 were outperforming male peers in isolation tests as they laid in dark, body-temperature water with earplugs and eyes covered, dreaming—by their own accounts—of space. In the isolation tank, Funk says, “I was thinking about how wonderful it would be to be up there and feel the lightness. It was freedom.” On the ground, though, NASA worked to kibosh the Mercury 13 program even as they were sending Glenn into space in 1962. 

But the very existence of 13 women who were proven to be as fit for space as the first American astronauts sent there poses a tantalizing question about what could have been. Their story is as much about what didn’t happen as what did. Walsh and Sington do a beautiful job of exploring this, asking viewers to directly confront the feelings raised by seeing women at the fore of the 1960s space program. They imagine a counterfactual history in which women were leaders of the space program. In perhaps the most striking example, they stage the famous 1969 moon landing imagining a woman, Sally, instead of Buzz Aldrin. (Sally is a fictional stand-in; none of the Mercury 13 bore that name.) “That’s one small step for a woman, one giant leap for mankind,” she says as grainy footage of her imagined moon landing plays. 

Mercury 13 isn’t the only piece of mainstream content currently being made about this missed opportunity. Netflix rival Amazon is producing a fictitious television show based on their story, IndieWire reports. It’s easy to see why now: in this historical moment, as our nation’s leadership hearkens back to the country’s more idealized past, there is a new reason to speak against that narrative. Sure, Sheppard and Glenn led the space program—but there were others, such as the black women mathematicians of NASA highlighted in Hidden Figures and the Mercury 13, who did or could have played just as big a role. Sometimes looking at the past is more about searching for clues about how the future might be different.

If, as this documentary presents, the first person to step on the moon in 1969 had been a woman rather than a man, it might have completely shifted the way space exploration was perceived. It’s hard to say exactly how, or if the currents of American misogyny run so deep that female astronauts might have been no more than aberrations. Today, the remaining members of Mercury 13 are old, and though many of them broke new ground for women in aviation, they will never reach the stars. But how would today look different if they had? How could tomorrow look different, knowing they almost did?

Lead Photo: Netflix