Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Mercury 13: The Other First-Generation Astronauts

The great Clare Boothe Luce championed them in Life at a time when that magazine really meant something, but it was to no avail. They privately trained for the American space program, passing many of the same physical and psychological tests, but the fix was in to keep them out. Although the thirteen women never trained as a unit like the original Mercury 7 astronauts, they still developed their own group identity. Their careers and legacy are chronicled in David Sington & Heather Walsh’s documentary Mercury 13 (trailer here), which premieres this Friday on Netflix.

Each of the Mercury 13 were accomplished aviators. In fact, many of them were veterans of the Women Airforce Service Pilots organization, who ferried combat planes from the factory to wherever the military needed them, except the actual combat zones. You could argue this made them something very much like test pilots, but NASA rigidly used test pilot experience as a prerequisite to disqualify the Mercury 13, even though such duties were not open to them.

When telling the story of the 13, Jacqueline Cochran emerges as the Chuck Yeager figure. Having achieved national stature as an aviator, Cochran convinced NASA flight doctor and life science expert Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to start a pilot program for prospective women astronauts at his private clinic. However, she later undercut the program at a critical moment.

Several of the surviving 13 lament what a great propaganda loss it was when the Soviet launched the first woman into space with Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. Frankly, she was more of a sporting figure than a real pilot or scientist, so any of the 13 would have made far more credible astronauts. There is no question they were qualified pilots and when it comes to space travel, being smaller of stature is a plus. However, there is a nagging hypothetical nobody dares to explore. Suppose a woman astronaut had died in the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The 13 were surely prepared to accept such risks, but you have to wonder if the reaction of the flawed 1967 media could have really set back the space program.

Regardless, the 13 deserved more respect from their male colleagues and NASA would have been much smarter if they had found high profile roles for them to play in the program, but not a lot of observers accuse NASA of being overly intelligent anymore. This is a fascinating story, but even at a highly-manageable seventy-eight minutes, Mercury 13 is conspicuously padded in places. If you enjoy footage of gliders, we have good news for you.

Even though Sington, Walsh, and most of their interview subjects direct plenty of criticism towards NASA, they are still obviously big believers in space exploration. After all, they are arguing for greater and wider participation, rather than less. That is why it is so frustrating to watch a space doc like this (or In the Shadow of the Moon, which Sington also directed, or Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, which Walsh co-produced) knowing we have allowed our own space flight capabilities atrophy into nothing. Recommended for providing a unique perspective on the Space Race, Mercury 13 starts streaming this Friday (4/20) on Netflix.