At a time when much has been written about the limited opportunities for female filmmakers, it is worth remembering that this sexist bias has infected many other fields as well. Mercury 13, a fascinating documentary that had its first showings at the San Francisco Film Festival and will premiere Friday on Netflix, demonstrates the prejudice against women pilots that had a devastating impact at the beginning of the Space Age.
The Oscar-nominated 2016 feature film Hidden Figures highlighted the female mathematicians who played a behind-the-scenes role at NASA. But this new doc directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh adds a crucial piece to that story, underscoring the surprising number of extremely talented pilots who were summarily rejected by the leaders of the early space program, including then Vice President Lyndon Johnson. These women were passionate flying enthusiasts. Some of them had been flying small planes since they were teenagers. When they learned that Dr. Randy Lovelace was testing pilots for an astronaut training program, they were eager to be considered.
One of the fascinating people interviewed in the film is Lovelace’s daughter, Jackie Lovelace Johnson, who reports that her father put these women pilots through elaborate medical tests and found that they had the strength and stamina to match the male pilots involved in the Mercury program. When orders came down to eliminate the women’s part of the program, the doctor was disappointed, and of course the female pilots were devastated.
Some of these pilots, still feisty in their eighties, make engaging interview subjects in the film. Family members of the other pilots are also on camera, and there is newsreel footage of some members of the Mercury 13 group who are no longer living. Several of these women went on to pursue their love of flying in other areas. Wally Funk became an air safety investigator for the National Transportation and Safety Board as well as the Federal Aviation Authority. But all of them express deep regret over their arbitrary rejection from the astronaut training program.
Later female astronauts were aware of the pioneers who preceded them in the field. Eileen Collins, who was selected to be an astronaut in 1990 and piloted the Space Shuttle in 1995, speaks eloquently about the legacy of the Mercury 13 and the bias that shut them out of the field.
Besides the revealing interviews, Mercury 13 benefits from excellent technical credits, including aerial and underwater photography. Like many documentaries today, the film includes some recreations, but these scenes enhance the story. Footage of small biplanes rising above the clouds captures the sense of adventure and serenity that drew these woman to aviation when they were in their teens and twenties. Similarly, underwater scenes simulating the physical tests that the women underwent during their astronaut training convey their fortitude.
Beyond the film’s technical expertise and the political issues that it raises, Mercury 13 works best simply as a tribute to a group of talented and courageous women who missed out on opportunities that might have benefited us all.
Production company: Fine Points Film in association with Dox Productions
Directors: David Sington, Heather Walsh
Producers: David Sington, Heather Walsh, Brendan Byrne, Trevor Birney, Geraldine Creed
Executive producers: Jason Spingarn-Koff, Kate Townsend, Lisa Nishimura
Director of photography: Nickolas Rossi
Editors: David Fairhead, Paul Holland
Music: Philip Sheppard
Venue: San Francisco International Film Festival