Day 6

The Mercury 13: The women who trained for space flight until NASA shut them down

The Mercury 13 were female pilots who successfully completed the same testing as the men who became the first U.S. astronauts. A new documentary tells their story.

'We felt like we were truly betrayed,' says Mercury 13 member Sarah Ratley

The story of Mercury 13, a group of female pilots who took part in astronaut testing in the 1960s, is being told in documentary available on Netflix. Sarah Ratley (right) was one of the pilots. (Fine Point Films/Netflix)

They were educated, skilled and physically fit for space flight, but because of their gender NASA shut down their dream.

The women are known as the Mercury 13, and their story is being told in a new documentary now available on Netflix.

I wish we had gone into space, but it was the feeling at the time. I wish we had gone on.- Sarah Ratley, one of the Mercury 13

Mercury 13, named for the women, recently had its international premiere at the Hot Docs Documentary Festival in Toronto.

In 1960, a selection of female pilots were invited to take part in astronaut testing by Dr. Randy Lovelace.

The Lovelace Clinic had already completed tests on the Mercury Seven, a group of male fighter pilots that included Alan Shepard, Virgil "Gus" Grissom and John Glenn — the first three American men in space.

The women who made up the Mercury 13 were all successful pilots. They all passed the same tests the men passed. Some even performed better than the men. But in 1961, they were told that there was no need for female astronauts.

Jerrie Cobb, going through spaceflight testing as one of the Mercury 13. (Fine Point Films/Netflix)

Powder Puff Derbys

Being a female pilot in the 1950s was an accomplishment in itself.

Sarah Ratley is a pilot and one of the Mercury 13. As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, at the time, "men were meant to go and fight the wars and women would stay at home."

But Ratley believed that women could have aspirations outside the home. She says she was drawn to flying in high school.

Sarah Ratley (left) at a Powder Puff Derby. Ratley says the first one she flew in was in 1952. (Netflix)

"I guess I was just a nerd — never noticed, never got invited to anything. And I joined the Civil Air Patrol and started flying and I loved it. And all of a sudden I really did get noticed," says Ratley.

She remembers her first solo flight as "pure freedom."

Many of the women recruited for space flight testing, including Ratley, took part in the Powder Puff Derbys, an annual air race for female pilots.

Ratley, who grew up in Kansas City, KS, started racing when she was just 18.

In its early years, the race was named for Jackie Cochran, a pioneering pilot who broke speed records and also become the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953.

Cochran was also a strong advocate for female pilots.

In 1959, rumours started to circulate among the racers that Lovelace was searching for women to test for space flight.

By 1960, Lovelace had chosen 25 potential female astronauts to undergo the same testing the men had endured.

Jacqueline Cochran was one of the first women to fly, and was a prominent racing pilot. (Netflix)

The tests

Unlike the tests on the Mercury Seven, the tests on the women were not done in cooperation with NASA. The tests were done secretly and were privately funded.

Women were invited to take part. They could not apply.

Ratley was working as an engineer with AT&T when she received a call about the Lovelace Clinic.

I just decided I was going to pass and I didn't care what. I was just going to pass.- Sarah Ratley

"I got this phone call saying ... can you be [in New Mexico] tomorrow. And of course I was young, but we were on overtime at work. And I said: 'Can I go?' And I went. And then when I got home I got the letter inviting me to come out there," recalls Ratley.

The tests were done at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque and were considered quite invasive and gruelling. The women were usually tested in pairs, or individually, and never actually met as a group during that phase.

One test involved filling the candidate's ear with ice cold water so that it would induce vertigo. The candidate would then be watched to see how quickly they could recover.

Another test involved being put in a pool in a sensory deprivation chamber, where candidates were measured for how long they could last before hallucinating or needing to leave the chamber.

Ratley says she doesn't remember the tests very well.

Wally Funk undergoing testing as a part of the Mercury 13 program. (Netflix)

"I just decided I was going to pass and I didn't care what. I was just going to pass. And I just took a deep breath and ignored it," she says.

"And then in the evening I got very friendly with the nurses and we go down to Old Town in Albuquerque and have a good time."

Ratley was thrilled to find out she'd made it through, making her one of the Mercury 13.

"I talked to Dr. Lovelace before I left the clinic and he told me I had passed, and that was very good. And then I got a letter that we were going on to Pensacola and I was looking forward to that."

Ratley believed that one of the 13 would go on to be the first woman in space.

"The staff at the Lovelace Foundation was extremely supportive and they were saying, 'yeah we think there is a woman going into space.' And I thought, when I was there, that yes, we would go."

The clinic in Pensacola would be the location for their next series of tests and training for space flight. But just days before phase two was to begin, NASA found out about the testing and shut down the program for women.

"They said that they had not been consulted. The Navy was all for it, but they said they had not been consulted. And of course ... Lyndon B. Johnson decided: 'Let's kill it.'"

Russia wins again in the Space Race

The Mercury 13 continued to fight to be part of the space program. They testified before Congress, but they were unsuccessful.

To the disappointment of many of the women, it was Jackie Cochran who helped put the nail in the coffin for their funding.

In 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. (NASA)

Before Congress, Cochran testified that testing was expensive and that it was correct to filter out the women from the program. She went on to say that it would be very expensive to train women because "you lose them through marriage."

A woman, the champion of female pilots, had failed to support the Mercury 13.

"We felt like we were truly betrayed at the time," says Ratley. "And I do believe that Jackie Cochran wanted to be the first woman in space, and she found out she couldn't be there. I think she regretted her decision years later."

In 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

Ratley was disappointed that none of the Mercury 13 made it to space first, but she did not begrudge Tereshkova.

"I was very proud of her. I think we were all very, very happy, because we felt that was helping our program too," says Ratley. "Because they were working to put Valentina in there, we might have a chance to go yet."

Eyes still on the sky

It took another 20 years for the United States to put a woman — Sally Ride —into space.

In 1995, Eileen Collins became the first American woman to pilot a space shuttle, and she invited the Mercury 13 to her launch.

In 1995, members of the Mercury 13 watch the launch of Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a shuttle into space. (Fine Point Films/Netflix)

In the documentary, the group are shown watching the liftoff with tears in their eyes.

"It was wonderful," says Ratley. "We felt like we had been redeemed. That what we had done had not been in vain. That we had laid the groundwork where other women could follow us. Someone must always lead the way in any field and try and crack that glass ceiling and we felt like we had helped do it," says Ratley.

"Eileen Collins even gave us credit for that, saying 'I stood on their shoulders.' Well, we stood on the shoulders of the ... women who helped train us during the Powder Puff Derbys and everything else. And it was just a gradual process where everybody stood on everybody else's shoulders."

Ratley still laments the end of their astronaut program.

"I feel like I wish we had gone into space, but it was the feeling at the time. And I felt bad that Jackie Cochran more or less defeated us. I wish we had gone on."

But despite the disappointment, Ratley remains positive.

"It's just one of the things that happened. Every door that closes, two more will open. And you just go on with your life and keep hoping that someday the program may be reversed, and you can go. If not you, then some other woman."

Ratley is 84 and still flies every chance she gets.

"It's just a wonderful feeling and it helps you get things in perspective," she says.

She still dreams about being in space, and has seriously considered a commercial space flight, if and when one becomes available.

"I think about that all the time ... I hope they hurry up."

Sarah Ratley (née Gorelick) still flies. (Netflix)

T​o hear more from Sarah Ratley, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.