PowderPuff Astronauts (Documentary Review: “Mercury 13”)


An inspirational historical documentary that sheds light on the lesser known story of the Space Race: a secret program in which top female pilots were put through a battery of tests to determine if they had the right stuff to be astronauts. They were simply known as the “Mercury 13”.


SnapShot Plot

In the opening of the timely documentary, Mercury 13, we revisit the (now) iconic images and video footage of the Moon landing, with one jarring difference. Instead of the voice of Neil Armstrong as he plants the American flag on the lunar surface, it’s a distinctly female voice saying his lines. We quickly realize the production conceit (which is repeated at the end of the film) before the ‘real’ story begins with the last surviving members of the Mercury 13 program. Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, Gene Nora Jessen and Sarah Ratley – women now in their later years – recall with amazing clarity and detail how it all began and describe (with not a small degree of sarcasm) the ‘boys club’ that existed in the world of aviation back in the day, which extended into the Space Race of the early 60s that so dramatically shaped their lives and their futures.

Up until the Soviet Union’s historic Sputnik mission in 1957, female pilots in the U.S. were mostly relegated to aerial acrobatic or barnstorming acts. Although many came from the much needed and respected transport service in which female flyers would run military planes to and from factories and air force bases during World War II. They were the Women Air Force Service Pilots, known as WASPs for short. The program was headed by a legendary female pilot named Jackie Cochran whose maverick accomplishments and sheer bravado earned her worldwide acclaim. By law, thanks to President Eisenhower, WASPs were barred from active military duty so the extent of their service to the Air Force was transport-only. When the Russians were making great strides in the field of aerospace technology and exploration, America scrambled to catch up. And from a conventional military mindset, the field of talent was relegated to fighter pilots, effectively cancelling out the possibility of any women being considered for the newly formed NASA pilot training program. A key figure in this narrative was Dr. William Randy Lovelace, who ran an eponymous clinic which evaluated prospective all-male pilots for acceptance into NASA. What NASA didn’t know was that Lovelace himself was having doubts as to the policy of exclusion of women to the astronaut program. What ensued was an experiment that turned the tables on the male-dominated field of space exploration, eventually involving the White House and a showdown in Congress. It all ended abruptly in what would amount to a shocking betrayal whose effects are still felt to this day.



Parting Shot

Directed and produced by David Sington and Heather Walsh, Mercury 13 is filled to the brim with original archival material from the 40s clear through today, as well as on-camera interviews with surviving pilots themselves or their family members who can offer the personal perspectives which make this exciting part of history come alive for an audience. And of course, the film provides a candid portrait of the emerging Feminist movement of the day, which can be seen as running parallel – indeed in counterpoint – to the U.S. space program itself.  As I watched Mercury 13, I was reminded of another (feature) film, A League of Their Own, that too dealt with an historic time in which women were – because of wartime – afforded a freedom to pursue an all-male industry (in that case, professional baseball) only to be tossed aside when the men came home from battle.

This week in the U.S. there was a shocking situation involving a commercial jetliner in which one of the twin engines literally exploded and tragically, a passenger was almost sucked out of a side window and died from her injuries. The plane was landed without further incident. Much has been made of the cool-headed female pilot, Tammie Jo Shults whose training as a Navy fighter pilot no doubt played a huge part in her ability to take control of her aircraft in an emergency. Which led me to contemplate how far we’ve come as a society to pave the way for a Tammie Shults or an Eileen Collins (featured at the end of Mercury 13) who was the first woman to captain a space shuttle mission. Imagine what new heights of achievement the ladies of Mercury 13 might have reached if history hadn’t dragged its feet in front of them?

Mercury 13 is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to announce squatters’ rights on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qx7BFLqbyUU


  • Piera says:

    I just finished watching this inspiring documentary. Thank God for pioneers who dared to dream, do, and create history. Thank you for recommending this Netflix pearl. I will spread the word.

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