Especially in male-dominated professions, female narratives aren't well documented. In fact, it took an Oscar-nominated film — 2016's Hidden Figures — for the names Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to be included in widespread American consciousness.
These exemplary women contributed greatly to NASA's space exploration efforts during the age of the space race, a time when the United States was cutthroat in its ambition to outpace Russia. In the end, Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit Earth, but not to be outdone, the United States worked ferociously to be the first to send a man on the Moon.
What about the women apart from Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson? What were they doing at the time? As it turns out, they were working as strenuously as the men were but failed to reap their fruits of labor.
The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian skydiver who spent almost three days in orbit inside the Vostok 6 capsule. The first American woman in space would not follow Tereshkova into space until another two decades.
Yet the United States could have been the first to send women to space, but did not, a new Netflix documentary reveals. Mercury 13 examines why NASA balked on the Mercury 13 project, but more than that, it looks into the lives of the 13 women who went through rigorous screening and training in 1960 and 1961 to determine whether they could qualify as astronauts.
As it turns out, the women performed as well as the men, if not better, according to Jackie, the daughter of William Randy Lovelace. It was Lovelace who began recruiting females for NASA's endurance tests after realizing that women should have a place in space.
Before the screening could be completed, NASA promptly canceled the program. Just like that, the dreams of 13 women were shattered, never mind their sterling qualifications.
So why were women excluded from the space agency's early exploration programs? It might be "good old-fashioned prejudice," as one participant claims in Mercury 13. The documentary begins streaming on April 20.
Mercury 13 is a compelling account of women — highly competitive and qualified ones, at that — trapped under the austerity of gender-based oppression. The historical footage is painful to watch, knowing how it turned out for these women.
A lot has changed since then, thankfully. Women have taken prominent roles in the spaceflight industry. For instance, Ellen Ochoa has been heading the Johnson Space Center since 2012, and astronaut Peggy Whitson has flown into space three times and has broken the record for most time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut. At least in spaceflight, women have been given the chance to occupy far more serious undertakings. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and a lot of other oppression-stricken industries have yet to uphold the same respect and equal opportunities for women, but that's changing.
Watch a trailer for Mercury 13 below.