The Mercury 13

The Mercury 13 will tell the story of Jerrie Cobb (Pilot of the Year in 1959) and the 12 other female pilots who took the “right stuff” astronaut tests in 1960 and 1961, one year after the Mercury 7 were put through the same grueling physical tests. At the time, there were rumors that the USSR was training female cosmonauts, so Dr. Randy Lovelace, the aerospace medical researcher who’d tested the men, decided to find out how well female pilots would do under pressure.  To the surprise of Lovelace and his colleagues, many of the women they tested knocked their socks off.

But passing the tests was just the first hurdle these women faced.

Even though these successful female pilots had thousands of hours of flying time under their belts, even though they were willing to risk their lives to help the US launch a woman into space before the USSR did, they were up against huge obstacles that were fundamentally cultural, not physical.  In the middle of the 20th century, the idea of a “female astronaut” was almost a contradiction in terms. John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, said, “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really.  It is just a fact.  The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them.  The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”

The Mercury 13 lands us squarely in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when stereotypical masculine and feminine roles were presented to the public (and taken for granted) in ways that seem almost laughable today.

The Mercury 13 also takes us deeply into the politics of the space race and space science – and allows us to revel in the sumptuous images of space travel that embodied the hopes of the period.

The film will include remarkable archival images and interviews with the Mercury 13 pilots, the early pioneers in aerospace medical research, the astronauts, Congress members and Senators, and the NASA officials who were involved as supporters and detractors of the female pilots who wanted to be part of the “final frontier.”

In telling their story, we see how the aspirations of 13 women pilots sparked a public battle over the role of women in society that was decades ahead of its time.


Mass Humanities, JFK Presidential Library, LBJ Presidential Library, Eisenhower Presidential Library, the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College

Board of Advisors

Nancy Cott (Harvard University), Susan Douglas (University of Michigan, Department of Communications Studies), Roger Launius National (Air and Space Museum Division of Space History), Howard McCurdy (American University, School of Public Affairs), Susan Ware (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University), Margaret Weitekamp (National Air and Space Museum, Division of Space History)