Madeira Mondays: Mercury 13

‘Floating among the stars, that is my objective.’ – Wally Funk

I didn’t know about the Mercury 13 until recently, when I read the sci fi thriller Goldilocks and saw that the book was dedicated to them. I looked them up and learned that they were a group of 13 women in the 1960s who wanted to become astronauts. They aced the same grueling physical tests as the male astronauts, but their careers were cut short before they even began when it was decided (in the USA, at least) that women shouldn’t be astronauts at all. What a tragic story, and equally more tragic when I watched this documentary, Mercury 13, and saw how qualified, capable and enthusiastic these women were.

This Netflix documentary from 2018 interviews many of the women who were part of the ‘Mercury 13’, including the epic Wally Funk, who did in fact end up going to space in 2021 on Blue Origin’s rocket, making her the oldest woman to go into space at age 82! All of the women are interesting, but Funk was really the star of the show for me in this documentary. Is she adorable and inspiring? Do I want to be her best friend? Do I want to be her when I grow up? YES! All of the above! What a lady. It was released three years before Funk actually went to space, and her excitement about someday leaving our planet crackles through the camera. She talks about the joys of being a pilot, about feeling so free, and how she would have loved to go to the moon. You can see the passion in her eyes, in all of their eyes, and it just made me cry thinking of how I would feel if I couldn’t pursue the career that I love (writing, in my case) because I was a woman. Which, let’s be honest, would have easily been the case not that long ago historically.

Overall I wouldn’t suggest watching this documentary if that sort of thing (stories of inequality etc.) gets you riled up, because there are some really infuriating bits in here like when we learn about then President LBJ discussing what would happen if women astronauts got their periods? As if this was a major issue. It’s especially sad to hear the famous male astronauts joke and compare the women to the chimpanzees who had already been sent into space (seriously!), to laugh and scoff to the press at the very notion of female astronauts. One very telling small moment came from some footage of a female pilot breaking a speed record for the time, and the broadcaster was musing about how much that flight was going to mess up her hair. Way to focus on the important stuff! Geez.

I liked all the footage from the 1960s though, especially the interviews with people on the street about whether women should be allowed to become astronauts. Not only was it fun to see the 1960s styles, but also to hear their range of answers. Some people argued that women weren’t ‘mature enough’ (?), whereas some thought that whoever was most qualified should fly. The ending of the documentary is also particularly moving, when we see the ladies of the ‘Mercury 13’ attend the launch of the first US female pilot into space, Eileen Collins.

So all in all it’s a snappy and heartfelt documentary, with a short run time and an important story. What I really liked about it was that it didn’t take anything away from the bravery, courage and technical expertise of the male astronauts who flew, but simply suggested that women who were just as courageous, capable and desirous should have been given that same chance. It also has a moving sequence that reimagines the moon landing if there had been female astronauts present and argues that it would have been very inspiring for a whole generation of girls to grow up knowing that it was a woman who first set foot on the moon (fun, sad fact, no woman ever has!).

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Hopefully this post wasn’t too much of a bummer – I found the documentary to be uplifting in the end and these women have a really cool story. Hopefully you don’t mind as well that this ‘historical’ post is more modern history than 18th century! As you can probably tell from my posts, I’ve been looking up to the heavens a lot more recently and for the first time working on a writing project that is inspired by outer space. I’ve got some news about this coming up, but can’t mention publicly yet. But hopefully you’re up for some ventures not just into the past but into the future as well this year…

I hope you’re having a wonderful start to the year and let me know if you’ve seen anything good recently!

PS Today’s featured image is of seven members of the ‘Mercury 13’ in 1995, image accessed via Wikimedia.

  • Mercury 13 (2018) documentary (I watched it on U.S Netflix, so it’s available there as of January 2021 – I assume since Netflix made it, it’s available on Netflix everywhere?)
  • Hidden Figures (2016), feature film about the African-American women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race. I didn’t love the movie, but it’s a fascinating story.
  • Apollo 13 (1995), feature film starring Tom Hanks about the infamous ‘Apollo 13’ mission to the moon. ‘Houston, we have a problem’. I watched this on UK Netflix not long ago, so it should be there. My personal favorite movie about space flight!
  • NASA’s official podcast: ‘Houston, we have a podcast’. This is a WONDERFUL podcast exploring NASA past and present, I’ve listened to most of the episodes. The host Gary Jordan is wonderful and really helps these brilliant people tell their stories in an accessible way.

And speaking of podcasts, if you remember my blog post from WAY back in early last year about the historical fiction novel The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, then you’ll remember I didn’t like that book very much. Well I had a chat all about it with my good friend on his podcast ‘Rare Adventures’ which is about 17th century history. We had a wonderful discussion about what we like (and don’t like) about historical fiction, plus men’s wigs, the hotness of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, what the heck is a ‘pocket’ and lots more. Here it is if you’d like to have a listen 🙂 My friend Sasha is super knowledgable and enthusiastic about history – I learned a lot from him during our conversation!

The first of our fiction episodes! This is an adaptation of La Señora Cornelia, a story from Novelas Ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes. Juan de Gamboa, a Spanish student at the University of Bologna, gets caught up in an intrigue involving star-crossed lovers, swashing bucklers, and a really great hat.
  1. Episode 5: Hatman
  2. Episode 4: The Devil and the Dark Water Review
  3. Episode 3: What's the Worst that can Happen?
  4. Episode 2: As long as Richard had his Liberty
  5. Episode 1: A Hoyting Girl

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