Visible Women

This Netflix documentary tells the untold story of NASA's women astronauts

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Emily Reynolds
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Women have historically been excluded from space travel – and a new documentary from Netflix is looking to explore why.

2016’s Hidden Figures sought to shine a light on the forgotten efforts of women working at NASA during the Space Race in the 1960s – a film based on the true stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson as they worked to plot the flight trajectories for the Apollo 11 flight to the moon and faced structural discrimination and racism. 

And now a new documentary from Netflix, Mercury 13, looks to explore more true stories, following the stories of 13 female pilots who were rejected from NASA’s space programmes. 

Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrle, Gene Nora Stumbough, Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan and Bernice Steadman were all professional pilots, and all underwent the same rigorous psychological and physical trials that male astronauts went through in order to gain entrance to the space programme. 

These included X-rays and regular physicals, to more unusual tests, such as one in which women were asked to “swallow a rubber tube” in order to test their stomach acids, and another where icy water was pumped into the women’s ears to induce vertigo. 

But despite passing the tests, NASA never allowed the women to go into space, and it wasn’t until 1983 that the first American woman, Sally Ride, went into space. 

Mercury 13 follows the story of these women as they mounted a legal battle against NASA for sex discrimination. 

“I think it’s important to tell people that women were involved in the space program. There’s lots of films about the space program and lots of stories about the space program but they generally focus on men,” director Heather Walsh told The Guardian.

“So I think it’s good to draw out these stories and show that women might not have been talked about but they were there, and they did help, and they did do their bit.”

The case was eventually seen before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics – two years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act made gender discrimination illegal. NASA argued that entry to the programme would require the women to have experience piloting military jets – despite the fact that women were barred from doing so. 

But equivalent experience in other types of flight – such as in propellor planes – was not accepted.

The loss of the case reflected restrictive gender norms at the time; astronaut John Glenn said that “the fact women are not in this field is a fact of our social order”. 

“I think this gets back to the way our social order is organised, really,” he said. “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” 

Walsh believes that winning the legal case would have changed “everything”. 

“I think there would have been a female president by now,” she says. “Being an astronaut at that time was the pinnacle of what you could do. 

“You know, the whole world was watching. And when you step out on to the moon there wasn’t a person on the planet that didn’t want to see you and didn’t know who you were.

“And I think if that person was a woman it would have would have changed things. It would have seemed normal for women to do anything.”

Mercury 13 is available to watch on Netflix now.

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.

Images: Netflix