Film Review: ‘Mercury 13’ Examines the Women Who Would Be Astronauts

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There are moments in history that forever change the world. One of those time periods was undoubtedly the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s. American and the USSR began the Space Race, which placed scientific achievement above bombs and war. For years, the Mercury 7 have been valorized in American pop culture, including the epic “The Right Stuff” in 1983. Despite the crowning of heroes, many have been pushed to the side, as seen by “Hidden Figures” just two years ago. As it turns out, another group of women was among those pushed to the side. Directors David Sington and Heather Walsh bring these stories to life in “Mercury 13,” which details the 13 women who almost became as famous as John Glenn or Alan Sheppard.

The story of the women who made the push to become astronauts is a fascinating narrative to follow. The women are known as the “Mercury 13” went through many of the same tests as the men who became the Mercury 7. In fact, the film argues that Dr. Randy Lovelace (who tested the Mercury 7) thought women may have been even more qualified for space travel than the men. Yet institutional sexism dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower creates roadblocks that stop the women from ever having a real chance to go to space, forcing them onto the sidelines for one of the greatest moments in our nation’s history.

The documentary benefits from several of the women giving their own opinions on the proceedings. Perhaps the most exciting is Wally Funk, who always is good for a laugh. Other women, including Gene Nora JessenSarah Ratley, and Rhea Woltman all tell fascinating stories about their lives as pilots. This is one of the strongest moments of the film, and their passion for flying is still here decades after they were denied their opportunity. Janey Hart and Beatrice Steadman are represented by their husbands or children after they’ve passed away.

One of the great things the documentary does is combine strong reenactment with lots of archival footage. They utilize montage well in some scenes, as women begin protesting for equal treatment against NASA’s advancement. There’s a fair critique of NASA and Glenn for burying women’s opportunity to go to space. It’s insightful of the directors to bring up the “betrayal” from one of their own. The documentary does well to acknowledge Valentina Tereshkova’s role as the first woman in space. Even though Tereshkova was Russian, the film acknowledges her important role as the first woman in Space. When Eileen Collins, the first woman to command and pilot a Space Shuttle, appears, it’s clear the Mercury 13 were integral in her moment.

However, there are some detractors in this process. Surprisingly, there is no mention of Katherine JohnsonMary Jackson, or any women of color in the events of the film. These women were not meant to be astronauts. Yet they were integral in helping NASA achieve its goals. In fact, there is a lack of women of color in the film at all. The story is ultimately about women not getting the opportunity to change the world through space exploration. Yet by limiting this narrative to white women, the film slightly hurts its own cause.

Overall, “Mercury 13” is a solid film that details the incredible women who paved the way for women to pilot a mission to space. They are exciting to watch on screen, and their story remains important today. Their call to action as the film ends, for women to enroll in STEM programs, remains relevant today. It’s another travesty that these women were never given this opportunity. While they may not have reached their highest potential, they represent true heroes. These women encourage young women to continue to reach for the stars.

What did you think of “Mercury 13?” Let us know in the comments below!

“Mercury 13” played at the San Francisco Film Festival. It is now streaming on Netflix.

GRADE: (★★★)