Quirks & Quarks

Right stuff, wrong gender — the true story of the women who almost went to the moon

In a new documentary, Heather Walsh and David Sington take us into the world of the Mercury 13, the 13 women who were secretly tested to go to the moon before their dreams were ultimately dashed - not because they didn't have the right stuff, but because they had the wrong gender.
Sarah Gorelick and other women involved in the Mercury 13 project (Netflix)

In 1995, when astronaut Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, she saved front row seats for some very special guests: a group of 13 women who almost went to the moon.

The Mercury 13, as they were dubbed, were a part of a privately-funded program in the early '60s to see how female pilots would fare taking the same tests as the Mercury 7 astronauts. Even though the women in many cases surpassed the men's results, NASA shut the Mercury 13 program down in 1962, and the world seemed to forget about these 13 women — until Collins credited these trailblazers for paving the way, and brought their story to the forefront.

Now, thanks to a new Netflix documentary, directed by Heather Walsh and David Sington, the Mercury 13 are in the limelight once again.

Dr. Randy Lovelace, the man who designed NASA's astronaut training program and the man behind the Mercury 13 project. (Netflix)

Started out as a science experiment

The program started out in 1960, after Dr. Randy Lovelace, who designed the astronaut training program for NASA, got an idea for a science experiment. He wanted to see if women could pass the same physiological tests as the men. After all, weight was the biggest problem for NASA at the time, and women typically weigh less than men. His first subject was Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb.

Cobb was considered one of the top pilots in the world. She flew her first plane at the age of 12. At 19 she was teaching men how to fly. At 21 she was delivering military planes to Air Forces worldwide. She set world records in speed and distance, and was the first woman to fly at the Paris International Air Show. By the time Dr. Lovelace brought her to his clinic, the 29-year-old had flown 64 types of propeller aircraft, racked up three world aviation records and 7,000 flight hours.

Jerrie Cobb undergoing testing as a part of Phase 1 of the Mercury 13 training program. (Netflix)

Jerrie Cobb passed all three phases of astronaut testing — the first American woman to do so, ranking in the top two per cent of all astronaut candidates of both genders. Lovelace put out a call to more female pilots to see how they could hack it, in a privately-funded, unsanctioned program.

After 700 applications, 19 women from across the country converged on Lovelace's clinic to take part in the first phase of testing: a barrage of 75 different tests, ranging from endurance tests to xrays to more unusual tests like electric shocks to the ulnar nerve in the arm, and swallowing a test tube to analyze stomach acids. The 13 women who passed these tests became the Mercury 13.

The oldest of the Mercury 13 was 41-year-old Janie Hart, a senator's wife and the mother of eight children. The youngest was Wally Funk, a 22-year-old civilian flight instructor to U.S. Army Officers. Rhea Hurrle was a schoolteacher, Marion and Janet Dietrich were identical twins. There was also Irene Leverton, Bernice Steadman, Jean Hixson, Gene Nora Stumbough, Jerri Sloan, Myrtle Cagle, and Sarah Lee Gorelick. All accomplished pilots with at least 1,000 flight hours, all wanting to be astronauts.

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

Two Women Space Commanders: What Took so Long?

The Only Woman In The Room

Astronaut Roberta Bondar shows us that space and conservation are 2 sides of the same coin

Phase two of the astronaut testing involved an isolation tank test and psychological evaluations. Hurrle, Funk, and Cobb went first, with Funk getting the overall isolation tank record of 10 hours and 35 minutes without hallucinating. The male astronaut record was just over three hours.

Then, it came time for third phase — aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft at a Naval Air Station in Pensacola. But a few days before the women were due to leave, NASA got wind of the program, and told the Navy to pull the plug on the tests.

Women vying for a place in the space program made the headlines in 1962. (Netflix)

"Let's stop this now"

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson famously scribbled "Let's Stop This Now" on a memo to NASA about the Mercury 13 program. As "Mercury 13" director David Sington speculates, the pressure was so high to beat the Russians to the moon that NASA didn't want to waste time worrying about female astronauts — and Johnson agreed. 

Janey Hart and Jerrie Cobb flew to Washington to try and change their minds. On July 17, 1962 Hart and Cobb testified before congress. Hart's statement began, "It will perhaps come as no surprise to you that I strongly believe women should have a role in space research. In fact, it is inconceivable to me that the world of outer space should be restricted to men only, like some sort of stag club."

But unfortunately for the Mercury 13, the ruling came down to NASA's astronaut recruitment rules. At the time, NASA was only looking at jet pilots to be potential astronauts. And only men were allowed to fly these military planes. So only men could be astronauts.

Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart testifying before congress. (Netflix)

Although the women made appeals, they were never allowed back to resume their training. NASA didn't recruit any female astronauts until 1978, and Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 as a mission specialist.

When Collins became the first female space shuttle pilot in 1995, eight of the surviving Mercury 13 members looked on as the first female pilot launched into space, proud that their mission had finally been accomplished.

Correction:  A previous version of this story stated that the first woman in space was Sally Ride.  She was the first American woman in space. The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tershkova in 1963.

Mercury 13 members Bernice "B" Steadman, Gene Nora (Stumbough) Jessen, Sarah (Gorelick) Ratley, Jerri (Sloan) Truhill, and Wally Funk at the 1995 launch of Eileen Collins. (Netflix)

The documentary Mercury 13 premieres at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto on April 27, and is available on Netflix now.