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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Mercury 13 is an inspiring documentary about how long it takes to overcome prejudice. Not until 1995 was a woman allowed to pilot the U.S. space shuttle, and groundwork for that breakthrough was laid by 13 female pilots who wanted to become astronauts in the 1960s. They underwent rigorous testing, with results suggesting that they were sturdier than the first men chosen by NASA to man the early U.S. space program. The surviving women are still feisty, smart, articulate, and engaging. It would be difficult to find better role models for following one's dreams.
What's the story?
MERCURY 13 exposes 1960s prejudices against white female pilots who passionately wanted to be astronauts but were rejected by NASA for being female. The documentary is a kind of Hidden Figures, but it showcases the difference between NASA and the government's friendly, paternalistic bias against the female pilots -- oh, those silly (white) women wanting to fly into space! -- and the mean-spirited, demeaning bias demonstrated by NASA against certifiably brilliant people whose most terrible failings happened to be that they were black and female. In 1958, NASA launched its Mercury program, testing male military pilots for physical and psychological stamina. They ended up with a group of seven photogenic pilots with big smiles and comforting all-American masculinity who would seek to help the U.S. catch up with the Russian space program. Owing to the funding offered by a famed female pilot of the time, Jacqueline Cochran, the doctor associated with NASA's pilot-testing regime also put 13 female pilots through the same program the men had undergone. The women outperformed the men, suggesting that women might actually be better suited to the rigors of space travel. But NASA, and the young, crew-cutted military men selected to be the first U.S. men in space argued condescendingly that women had no place in the space program. Not until 1995, when Eileen Collins piloted the Space Shuttle into the heavens, did the women who longed to launch into the stratosphere decades earlier finally feel vindicated. Collins cited them as the pioneers who made her career possible, and she invited the surviving pilots to her launch, a moving experience for them all. Interviews with the Mercury women, in their 80s now, reveal feisty, iconoclastic, smart, articulate women whose passion for flying gave them the guts to pursue their dreams in the face of social pressure to be more ladylike. It's worth noting that one of the 13, Janey Hart, a pilot and wife of Senator Philip Hart, was moved by the prejudice women faced from NASA to become a founding member of the feminist organization NOW (National Organization of Women). Her children remember her admiringly in informative interviews.
Is it any good?
This documentary reminds us that people willing to fight for their rights are often considered dangerous at the time they launch their quests, but history usually comes down on the side of equality. The women lobbying to be allowed to fly for NASA recognized the threat their dreams posed to established norms and tried to couch their arguments in calming terms that wouldn't ruffle the feathers of the males in power. In 1962, pilots Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart, wife of Senator Philip Hart, testified before a House subcommittee on astronaut selection. Cobb diplomatically stated, "we women pilots ... are not trying to join a battle of the sexes. ... We seek, only, a place in our nation's space future without discrimination." When Cobb is interviewed, a clueless reporter asks why there is a need for women in the space program. The dopiness of the question illustrates how far women had to go to achieve their place in the male-dominated field. The women in Mercury 13 show themselves to be role models for all who just want a fair shot at living their dreams.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the histories of different prejudices and how many seem to fall out of favor as time marches on. Discussions can include slavery; women getting the vote; laws against interracial marriage, gays in the military, and gay marriage; and limitations on female and black enrollment in elite colleges and universities.
Why do you think prejudices form? If ignorance and unfamiliarity cause prejudices, do you think forcing knowledge and exposure on the prejudiced can help eliminate bias in society? Why or why not?
Women who flew planes in the 1960s were unusual and discouraged from doing what they loved. Can you think of activities today that women are discouraged from participating in?
What character strengths do the Mercury 13 demonstrate?
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