In 1958, NASA began Project Mercury with the goal of finding the best, brightest, and most fit humans for space travel. The all-male group chosen were dubbed the Mercury 7, and included now-famous names like Alan Shepard and John Glenn. But while Dr. William Lovelace, Flight Surgeon and Chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, helped create the testing process for the men, he also secretly ran a program testing women for the exact same things, named the Mercury 13. Netflix's new documentary of the same name explores not only where the Mercury 13 women are now, but details the rigorous testing process — in which most of the women performed better than their male counterparts — and the sexism that resulted in the program's cancellation.
"I’m not convinced that they knew what they were looking for," says Mercury 13 member Gene Nora Jessen of Lovelace's experiments, speaking over the phone recently. "What do you need to go into space? What kind of a person do you need to go into space? I think they were trying lots of different things just to get an idea of what the human body was capable of."
As shown in the doc, streaming now, the women were put through the same testing that the men were — X-Rays, physical exertion, and some pretty intimate probing. "I had tubes up me, down me, any which way they could get one in me," recalls Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk, another member of the Mercury 13. "They really didn't know what they were testing for. They were going beyond measure to see what the human body could do."
As it turns out, many of the female candidates performed better than the men in Lovelace's tests. The women were able to tolerate more stress, exert themselves for longer periods of time, and handle things like isolation and anxiety with better emotional control than the men. Not to mention the fact that the women were younger and in better shape. "No wonder a lot of the guys didn't make it, because the guys were all 35 to 40 years old and smokers and drinkers!" Funk adds.
Funk's most vivid memory of the trials is of the experiment where 10 degree water was squirted into her ears, causing uncontrollable spasms. "Have you ever put a Q-Tip in your ear just a little too far?" she asks. "Think of it as 20 times harder than that. Your mind, your muscles, your nerves, everything in your head and body goes absolutely berserk, because they've messed with your brain."
But despite the fact that the women succeeded in the tests and that it would have cost less for NASA to use women in the program (they weighed less, and consumed less food and water than the men), the sexism of the era still prevailed. When NASA found out about Lovelace's secret female counterpart study, it was abruptly cancelled. Jessen wasn't surprised; although she and the other 12 women were all experienced pilots with countless flight hours under their belts, NASA was only taking men who had graduated military jet test piloting programs, which didn't allow women at all. "I did not personally think that I was going to be going into space," Jessen says now. "Let’s be realistic. I had no possibility of being a military jet pilot. Girls couldn’t do that."
Funk wasn't so easily discouraged, though. In fact, she was more determined than ever to continue. At the time of NASA's decision, most of the Mercury 13 had finished Phase I, which included the physical tests. Only a handful, including Funk, went on to Phase II, the psychological phase, featuring a sensory deprivation tank and other mental tests. Phase III was set to include flight training in Pensacola, Florida at the Naval Academy, but the U.S. Navy cancelled their permissions. That's when Funk took matters into her own hands.
"I went to El Toro Air Force Base. I knew a couple of guys there and they were testing the military guys, and I said, 'Give me every test I'd need for space,'" she recalls, adding that she thought they'd eventually break down and allow women. "I went to Russia and took all the Cosmonaut tests, and I beat those guys too." The sexism and "good old boys club" attitude prevailed, however, and none of the Mercury 13 ever became astronauts. "They didn't think girls could do anything," Funk says. "But they didn't even give us a chance."
Despite having never made it to space, Jessen, Funk, and the remaining 11 members of the Mercury 13 all went on to have successful careers in flying. They became professional pilots, flight instructors, aviation experts, and executives. Jean Hixson was was the second woman to break the sound barrier. Garaldyn "Jerrie" Cobb was teaching men to fly at only 19 years old. Jerri Sloan Truhill helped to develop Terrain Following Radar. Funk was the very first Federal Aviation Agency inspector. And Jesson flew a number of years as a demonstration pilot for Beechcraft before opening her own Beechcraft dealership and airport. "I say that this astronaut program was the best thing that ever happened to me because it moved me along," Jessen says.
As for Funk, she still has plans for getting to outer space. She's paid to be on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic commercial space flight, and says she'd go tomorrow if they were ready. "Branson said, 'How high do you want to go?' and I said I want to be 100 miles above earth," she recalls. "And he said, OK!"
Both Funk and Jessen are glad to see that there's so much interest in space travel today, especially in regards to women's roles in the program's history. The ladies credit the movie Hidden Figures with getting more people curious about the female history of NASA. "After Hidden Figures came out, [people found] out the amazing things those girls did. And we were even way before that," says Funk. The recent news of how Tammie Jo Shults, a female former fighter pilot flying for Southwest, landed a passenger aircraft after a huge engine explosion, will also undoubtedly pique more people's interest. "What a great gal she is," Funk says of Shults. "I would like to get a hold of her. I hope that they play her up more."
The careers of women like Shults show just how far the world has come in giving women equal opportunities in space and aviation. Back in 1961, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space, but it would be another two decades before Sally Ride became the first American woman to reach the stars. The surviving members of the Mercury 13 were present at the launch of Eileen Collins' shuttle in 1995, where she became NASA's first female pilot and first female shuttle commander. And the latest class of NASA astronauts is 50 percent female. All of these successes are thanks in part to the women of the Mercury 13.
"We were so ahead of our time," Funk says now. "I wish I was born 40 years later." With the moon in our rearview mirror, Mars as the next goal, and women involved with space travel now more than ever, let's hope that the first small steps on the red planet are those of a woman and the voice heard on the radio declares one giant leap for womankind.