The "Mercury 13" planned to be the first female astronauts to attempt spaceflight, undergoing rigorous training in a private program — until NASA found out about them.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
After she knew she’d never go into space, Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk flew from Taos, New Mexico to Brussels, bought a Volkswagen Camper, and drove through 59 countries.
Funk and 12 other women had been part of a 1959 private program run by NASA scientist, Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II. Lovelace had just come back from Moscow and wanted to test whether women were as capable of spaceflight as men, or even more superior. (Some believed that as women tended to be smaller and lighter than men, they were preferable in space because they took up less room.)
Lovelace invited pilot Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb for the first tests, and once she aced them all, he decided to invite more female pilots into the program that would become known as Lovelace's Women in Space Program. Between May 1961 and May 1963, its participants sat through the same tests that NASA’s male astronauts were going through in preparation for the Mercury Space Program.
Funk and her peers aced the first phase of the physical tests. A nuclear counter measured the women’s lean body mass, their eyes were tested for four hours, a rubber tube was passed through their throats in order to test stomach acids, and there was a special respiration rate-measuring bicycle they rode to the point of exhaustion. After completing a battery of psychological tests, the women prepared for a third phase in Pensacola, Florida to acquaint them with military equipment and jet aircrafts.
This is when NASA came to know of Lovelace’s project, and intervened. The Navy would not let the women test without NASA’s permission, and NASA refused to allow Lovelace’s private program to upset the Mercury mission plans involving seven male astronauts. NASA also insisted that astronauts required military flying experience. Given that the US Armed Forces didn’t allow women to fly, this effectively precluded all women from space flight. The Pensacola tests never happened and these women—collectively known as the Mercury 13—never made it to space, or achieved the popular acclaim they deserved. But their story has found a new lease of life in Mercury 13, a Netflix original documentary that tells the brave attempts of these female aviation pioneers.
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Funk was eight years old when she first tried flying in her barn, wearing a makeshift Superman cape. She fell on her face. “I grew up in Taos, New Mexico and the spirit of the Taos Mountain told me that I’d be a pilot,” she remembers in a phone conversation with Broadly. “I had little models of aeroplanes hanging from my ceiling. I always knew I wanted to fly.”
Gene Nora Jessen was in high school when she joined the Civil Air Patrol in Chicago. “The younger members were taken on flights, and I was given some stick time. The instructor said I was a natural! I guess that was the first seed of ambition,” Jessen recalls.
Sarah Ratley was 28 years old and a qualified electrical engineer when she joined the Mercury 13 program. Despite the scale of the tests ahead of her, she didn’t have any first-day jitters. “A physical is only a physical, you know,” Ratley says in a phone interview. “I was in a great mood.” Remarkably, Ratley had flown the Powder Puff Derby, America’s first official women-only air race, at only 18.
The Mercury 13 underwent brutal tests. “They’d inject 10 degree Fahrenheit water into my ears and that’s when my whole body would shake and stop functioning,” Funk remembers. “Within that induced vertigo, I yelled and screamed but recovered faster than anyone else, even the men.”
With each phase of the program, the tests got more gruelling. Women would enter sensory deprivation tanks to simulate the feeling of being in space. Cobb lasted nine-and-a-half hours in the tank—and in a contemporary television interview shown in Mercury 13, admits to finding it relaxing.
When NASA shut down the program in 1961, the women received telegrams telling them that testing had been postponed. “I was hopeful," Ratley tells me. "I thought it was only a temporary lapse." Cobb and fellow Mercury 13 recruit and mother-of-eight Janey Hart even flew to Washington DC and testified before a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in an effort to have the program renewed. While their efforts helped introduce the notion of employment discrimination into popular consciousness two years before the Civil Rights Act made it illegal, it was ultimately in vain. Mercury 13 was no more.
Although Mercury 13 didn’t send women into space, it did create a community of women willing to fight institutional injustice. Hart and Cobb went on to launch political campaigns that would put pressure on the NASA to employ female astronauts. Funk applied to join NASA four further times—and was blocked at every turn. As Cobb explained in a 2007 interview with CBS, she even managed to meet Lyndon Johnson. He reportedly told her that if women were allowed into the space program, they'd have to let African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and other minorities in. "We just can’t do it,” Johnson said. (It wasn't until 1983 that NASA sent an African-American, Guy Bluford, on a mission.)
Even if the Mercury 13 never made it into space, their legacy continues to endure to this day. When Eileen Collins finally became the first American woman to pilot a STS-63 spacecraft in 1995, she invited the surviving members of the Mercury 13 crew to the launch. Eight attended.
In the most moving scene in Mercury 13, the surviving women watch Collins’ launch with pride. Funk grins broadly as Collins' STS-63 lifts off safely. Jessen has no bitterness about how she was treated. “I felt wonderful to have been part of something that paved way for women to get to space. I was not bitter or sad, just very very happy and glad,” she tells me.
For Ratley, watching Collins lift into space felt like a personal achievement. “I felt redeemed,” she tells me. “I felt like our dreams were not failures.”
Mercury 13 is available to stream on Netflix now.