Mercury 13 review: a fascinating, often infuriating true story of space age misogyny

Co-directors Heather Walsh and David Sington handle the material deftly, creating a fascinating and often infuriating true story of space age misogyny in a by-the-numbers documentary from Netflix. It’s a fascinating true tale, peppered with archival footage and modern-day interviews, and whilst it breaks no new ground in terms of documentary film-making, the story and interviewees are strong enough to engage throughout.

Where Hidden Figures was a drama highlighting the unsung black women who assisted America’s space program, Mercury 13 focuses on what might have been had women been accepted as astronauts. Recruited by NASA advisor Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, the women were part of a secretive, privately-funded study, looking into the viability of female astronauts. A study in no way supported or recognised by NASA. From 1958 onwards the women underwent tests, in parallel to NASA’s male-only space program. All excelled as aviators, all passed the body-slamming endurance tests, but all were ultimately disregarded by NASA. The patriarchal “good-old-boy” network of NASA some sixty years ago acts as a microcosm for a patriarchal society undervaluing excellent candidates purely for reasons of gender.

In 1983 the Space Shuttle program launched the first American woman into space, but after watching Mercury 13, Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he set foot on the lunar surface will never mean the same. “One small step for Man”, but what about the other half of the human race?

Watch Mercury 13 right now on Netflix