Will There Ever Be an Oscar for a History of the Mercury 13?


It’s been a small but warm comfort to witness the success of Hidden Figures, and today’s three Academy Award nominations for a movie that subverts the most tired storytelling traditions about America’s early space program. As the title promises, Hidden Figures moves the story’s focus away from the male astronauts who got vaulted above the atmosphere to the black women mathematicians and engineers who were just as essential to making it happen.

But there’s another part of the story that deserves telling: The astronauts who linger around the film’s edges weren’t all men either. On the contrary, there were 13 women, just as qualified as the men, just as accomplished as pilots, who never got to go to space.

Close to four decades after the 1979 publication of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s history of early American spaceflight, we’re still undoing the damage, and Hidden Figures is just the start. Wolfe’s book quickly became enshrined as popular history, and the template for blockbusters about NASA’s early days. The 1983 movie adaptation, 1995’s Apollo 13, and the glossy HBO successor From the Earth to the Moon all hit the same storytelling beats—especially when it comes to gender and Wolfe’s “men: astronauts::women: wives” model.

It’s an infuriatingly limited version of history. This is a grudge I’ve nursed since I was a space-obsessed preteen, when The Right Stuff made my fledgling-feminist teeth clench with its rapt descriptions of the brave, macho test pilots and their passive, Penelope-like spouses. Wolfe wasn’t subtle; the righteous stuff of his title came down to “manliness, manhood, manly courage.” (Italics all his.)

At least his version of femininity went over my head at the time. I had to pause a recent reread for gags at “young juicy girls in their twenties with terrific young conformations and sweet cupcakes and loamy loins.”

Even at ten years old, I knew Wolfe was leaving people out of his ode to manliness. I’d already come across Jerrie Cobb, a record-breaking pilot who happened to be female in other, seemingly less authoritative histories, and kept waiting for her name to come up. It didn’t, though during the era that Wolfe chronicled, Cobb and 12 other female pilots underwent the same grueling tests as the Mercury 7, the first seven U.S. astronauts.

The women publicly lobbied for their shot at the stars. “In August 1960, when word of her rating of ‘extraordinary’ on the tests was made public, many newspapers and magazines in the country saluted Miss Cobb as America’s first ‘lady astronaut.’ Time magazine referred to her as ”Astronautrix Cobb,” and Life ran photos of her taking the tests,” according to a 1983 follow-up in the New York Times.

But Cobb and the other women now known as the Mercury 13 were blocked from the early space program – and omitted from many subsequent stories about it. Many Americans, including John Glenn, were complicit in keeping women out of the early astronaut ranks. NASA sent Glenn to Congress in 1962 to make sure these pilots wouldn’t fly:

“The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes,” Glenn testified at a House of Representatives hearing about charges of gender discrimination in the space program. “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” he added. “It may be undesirable.”

Then-vice president Lyndon Johnson rejected the women’s efforts to plead their case: “He did not want to ask [NASA administrator] James Webb to look into the question of women astronauts,” Martha Ackmann wrote in her 2003 book, The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight.

Instead, Johnson scrawled across a letter to Webb, “Let’s Stop This Now!”

It would take another two decades before Sally Ride became the first woman into space, and three before Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman there. It would take thirty years, until the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term, before a woman named Eileen Collins was actually allowed to fly the spacecraft.

Meanwhile, the Mercury 13 women mostly slipped out of history – especially the pop culture version. That women weren’t allowed to do the jobs they were trained for isn’t Wolfe’s fault; that they were left out of the story is. Every once in a while there’s a heartbreaking article about Cobb, who decided to use her flying skills for missionary and humanitarian work in South America. In 1998, as Glenn was allowed to return to space to study the effects of aging (apparently the natural order allowed for old people), a group of U.S. senators and aviation organizations urged NASA to give Cobb her long-awaited chance at an astronaut’s suit.

“I would give my life to fly in space, I really would,” Cobb, then 67, told the Associated Press. “It just didn’t work out then, and I just hope and pray it will now.”

It did not. But her story is as much a part of the early American space program as the one that Wolfe solidified in The Right Stuff, or the much-delayed one that book author Margot Lee Shetterly and director Theodore Melfi are now popularizing with Hidden Figures.

As that film’s success shows, it’s now possible to make a compelling – and popular – story about space even when its heroines remain grounded. Someday, hopefully soon, Cobb’s history should fit right in.