When the movie “Hidden Figures” came out a year and a half ago, I wrote about how much I enjoyed it, but how upset I was that we’d never been taught an important piece of NASA history — the role of African-American women in getting us into space.
Now I’m even more upset after watching the Netflix documentary, “Mercury 13,” about the female pilots who were given many of the same tests as the men who were chosen to be our first astronauts, but were never allowed to prove their abilities and thus earn a place in our space-going history. While they were not allowed to play even a behind-the-scenes role in NASA’s preparations to put humans into orbit, their story should be better known. Now it can be, thanks to directors David Sington and Heather Walsh.
While the US beat the USSR to the moon, they were way ahead of us in giving women a boost. The Soviet Union put a woman (Valentina Tereshkova) into space in June, 1963, just two years after Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to travel there. Sadly, the US didn’t give Sally Ride a chance until 1983, twenty years later — and that was after the USSR’s second woman made it beyond our atmosphere (Svetlana Savitskaya) in 1982! Then it was another 12 years until Eileen Collins was allowed to become the first American woman to pilot a spacecraft (the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1995). At the time Collins made a special point to not only give the Mercury 13 women credit, but to invite many of them to her launch, and that scene in the movie is very touching.
One can only wonder how things might have been different if a female American had been chosen to be one of the Mercury 7 astronauts. Imagine how that would have inspired girls to pursue careers in the STEM fields 50+ years ago, and the message it would have sent about the equality of the sexes. Unfortunately, as one of the Mercury 13 says in the movie, “It was a good old boy’s network, and there was no such thing as a good old girl’s network.”