David Sington is perfectly placed to know exactly what goes into walking on the Moon, because over his career the director has spoken to all of the people to do so.
But “Mercury 13” tells a different story. A more frustrating story. It revolves around the group of women who back in 1959 were given the same physiological screening tests as the official NASA astronauts, actually scored higher than their male counterparts, but were cruelly never allowed to be part of the space race.
But times have well and truly changed, so much so that Sington recently told me he expects the first person to walk on Mars to be a woman. “When Eileen Collins says that the first person on Mars will be a woman I think it very well might be. In fact it’s likely,” he explained.
Sington used the plight of the Mercury 13 to reveal the reasons why that should be the case. “When you looked at their qualifications there were actually a lot of reasons why they should have gone to space.”
“Especially because they are smaller and lighter and would take up less oxygen. That would have meant that they could bring more moon rock for samples. There were so many reasons why they should have gone.”
Because of these reasons, Sington, who directed the documentary with Heather Walsh, regards NASA’s decision to overlook the Mercury 13 from the chance to walk on the Moon as egregious.
“I do think it was a tragically missed opportunity. The people in charge weren’t seeing the true potential for what they could do. They were blind to it. And until you are at the point where you think it was odd that women didn’t walk on the moon then there is still this unconscious bias.”
Sington believes that these women still did wonders for female equality, though. “They had an important catalytic effect, not just on women going to space, but on women equality itself.”
“It was an important moment. Because if women could do that then they could do anything. The job was the most prestigious in America. These Mercury 7 astronauts are presented as the best America had to offer. So the fact that women went, ‘We can do that, too,’ got a lot of attention.”
“It was difficult for the men to take women seriously. They had forgotten what they had done in the war. They had proved everything that they could do and there was no difference between a male and female pilot. There was seemingly a push to put women back. Then in the 50s and 60s women fought back and said that wasn’t good enough.”
Even though there is no longer prejudice at NASA, and there is now a great tradition of female astronauts, Sington is well aware that the fight for equality still hasn’t been won. Something that was highlighted when they had to change their planned conclusion that celebrated Hillary Clinton’s expected Presidential victory.
“When Donald Trump was elected we realized that we needed a new ending. But the election of Donald Trump, and the Harvey Weinstein revelations did make the film more relevant.”
“There’s still a lot of progress needed for us to be an even society, though. And this film highlights that. Because just imagine the impact that putting a woman on the moon first would have made.”
Let’s hope that NASA doesn’t make the same mistake when they eventual venture to Mars.
“Mercury 13” is released onto Netflix on April 20.