Jerrie Cobb, 29, Okla. City, stands beside a model of the G.E. Discoverer Satellite Recovery Vehicle during the 7th Annual Astronautical Society meeting in 1961.
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By Lily Rothman
April 19, 2018

The iconic line has become so familiar that it might be hard to imagine it any other way: as the first man on the moon put it, his achievement was “one small step for man.”

But what if the first human being on the lunar surface had been a woman? That’s a central question asked by the Netflix documentary Mercury 13, directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh, premiering Friday — and, say the filmmakers, a question that’s still worth asking even decades after the last moon landing.

The “13” in question were a group of experienced female pilots — Jerrie Cobb, Janey Hart, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Rhea Hurrle, Irene Leverton, Bernice Steadman, Jean Hixson, Gene Nora Stumbough, Jerri Sloan, Myrtle Cagle, Sarah Lee Gorelick and Mary Wallace Funk — who in the early 1960s were invited by Dr. Randolph Lovelace, who had also been involved in testing male pilots for the same reason, to take the tests he had given to the Project Mercury astronauts. (Though she later spoke out against pushing to include women, the idea was initially helped along by famed female pilot Jackie Cochran, and by her funding.) Cobb was the first woman to undergo the testing, and after she passed the test the other women were invited to participate.

As TIME explained in 1960, Cobb underwent “a brutal battery of 75 separate physical and psychological tests” and by passing demonstrated that women, with their lower body mass, “may be better equipped than men for existing in space.” TIME dubbed her “the first astronautrix.”

A still from 'Mercury 13' shows some of the women involved in the project
Netflix

Though the women initially kept quiet about what was going on, by mid-1960 outlets such as LIFE magazine were covering the story excitedly. As TIME later explained in a 2003 review of Martha Ackmann’s book The Mercury 13, “the macho culture of the space program was too entrenched to accommodate them. Vice President Lyndon Johnson scribbled on a memo about the initiative, ‘Let’s stop this now!’ — and without much fanfare, it was stopped.”

But to the women at the heart of the program, the order to end it was an outrage.

Not only did a few of them testify before Congress in an attempt to be allowed to shoot for the moon, but many of them also continued to lead lives centered around flight, even after their mission was denied.

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The fuss the women made about being excluded is key, filmmaker Sington says. For one thing, it gives the narrative an arc. “I was worried that it was a non-story,” he says, “in that it was a story about something that didn’t happen, which is hard to make a movie about.” Walsh says she doesn’t know why the story of the Mercury 13 isn’t better known, but Sington guesses it’s partially related to the narrative difficulties of retelling the story. The women’s anger also prompts viewers to question their assumptions.

That was a feeling that Sington had experienced personally: he had previously worked on a different project about the Apollo program, and says he never questioned the fact of the astronauts’ gender. “The fact that they might have been women never entered my mind,” he says. “But as I began researching this story I realized that wasn’t ‘natural,’ it was a choice that had been made.”

That was precisely the point that Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart (whose husband was Sen. Philip Hart) made when they testified before the House Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts on July 17, 1962.

As Cobb told the committee, “we women pilots who want to be part of the research and participation in space exploration are not trying to join a battle of the sexes… We seek, only, a place in our Nation’s space future without discrimination.” There were women on the Mayflower and on the covered wagons that headed west, she added, so why should there not be women in the next phase of American exploration?

Hart spoke next, and elaborated on the point. Here’s how she made the case that the U.S. should send women to space:

Despite their pleas, the women were still shut out of the space program. The Soviets beat the U.S. at this particular space race, sending Lieut. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova into orbit in 1963. Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space in 1983, more than two decades after Hart testified — but, even 35 years after that milestone, Hart’s testimony is still poignant.

Just as the Mercury 13 women unsuccessfully tried to convince those running the space program to question their assumptions, says David Sington, their story is a reminder to question other assumptions about gender.

“Once you realize those are choices,” he says, “you can make other choices.”

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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