Mercury 13

Studio: Netflix
Directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh

Apr 19, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


“I guess we did it so well that they didn’t like it,” an elderly female pilot says early on in Mercury 13, gleefully dismissing the sexist attitudes of her time. She may not say the words out loud, but you can hear haters gonna hate loud and clear in her voice. She is feeling herself, as the kids would say. And she isn’t alone in that feeling: most of the subjects of Mercury 13 are flying high off their accomplishments.

The joy these women get in the freedom of flying and thumbing their noses at the conventions of their time is the most endearing quality about David Sington and Heather Walsh’s documentary. Chronicling the story of the thirteen women who were a part of the “Mercury 13,” Sington and Walsh paint a picture of the Space Race you won’t see in most history books.

While they never made it to space and were not officially part of NASA’s astronaut program, The Mercury 13 underwent the same rigorous physiological screening tests as the male astronauts did and showed that women could handle the high-stakes pressures of flight and space just as well as their male counterparts. Their efforts paved the way for female astronauts of the future like Eileen Collins and Sally Ride, helping to create a future where, as one interviewee wistfully observes, the first person on the Moon was a man but the first person on Mars may be a woman.

The documentary shines brightest when it focuses on interviews with the surviving members of The Mercury 13. Listening to pilots like Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, and Sarah Ratley wax lyrical about the joys of aviation is when Mercury 13 is at its most engaging. The early segments of the film, covering the “Powder Puff Derby” air races where most of these women honed their skills, is interesting enough that it’s a letdown when the film segues into talking about NASA. Whether it’s hearing them talk about their heroes (like female aviation pioneer Jacqueline Cochran), or listening to the daughter of Mercury 13 subject Janey Hart reminisce about flying with her mother as a child and worrying that their plane was going to crash into “solid” clouds, the film soars when it’s focused on their direct experiences. The culture of women flying on their own and forging bonds of sisterhood from that is a way more interesting story than the story of thirteen women who never got to see the inside of a space shuttle.

Once Mercury 13 leaves the Powder Puff Derbies and settles into the world of space medicine, it gets grounded and doesn’t achieve lift-off again. We go from a story we haven’t heard before (the femme flight circuit) to one that’s all too familiar (women getting boxed out by a “Boys Only!” club).

While parts of the documentary are dull, it’s enlivened by some breathtaking aerial photography and Philip Sheppard’s electronic & string-heavy score. The shots of planes cutting through cloud banks and pirouetting across a blue expanse gives us a small taste of the thrill these women must have felt when they got into the pilot’s chair. “I’m not a jet, I’m not a person,” one of the pilots says rapturously. “I’m a spirit going up.”

Author rating: 5/10

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jim oberg
April 21st 2018
1:34pm

“Sington and Walsh paint a picture of the Space Race you won’t see in most history books.” That’s because it’s fake history. Eisenhower’s decision [it wasn’t up to NASA] to only use experienced test pilots [a career closed to women in that era] was vindicated by subsequent spaceflight experience on early missions where test pilot skills proved critical to survival. No ground test or interview could identify those individuals who had the mental resilience to remain mentally functional under lethal threats, proven by passage through a career that killed a large fraction of their colleagues—the survivors demonstrated they had the ‘right stuff’, not the expert opinion of some white-coated knee-thumper or clipboard-equipped therapist. Both men and women, some of each of them, had that mindset – but only the men had been through the meatgrinder of gruesome death that had filtered out those who did and those who didn’t. Skipping that self-selecting gamut that had further winnowed-out the candidates would have been dangerous to individuals and to entire programs. And when THAT ‘test pilot’ bottleneck WAS lifted [and further opened as flight experience promised to lower the odds of lethal surprises], women flowed into the program with the men, and on Challenger and Columbia and in training, paid with blood as they died alongside their male colleagues—and nobody flinched because the requisite rite of passage was respected. Setting aside that filter for a stunt—the route taken by the USSR—was a dead-ended feel-good gimmick [look at how it sidelined other Russian space-minded women for half a century]. Meanwhile, even the title ‘Mercury-13’ is bogus, it was a publicity gimmick made up by a writer 30 years later to imply a non-existent connection with the Mercury program, and there had been 14 women but ‘13’ sounded better.