She Should Have Gone to the Moon is a documentary about Jerri Truhill, one of 13 women who trained to go into orbit in the early years of the US’ space programme, but who never made it because of sexism in Nasa and the US government.
The story itself is fantastically interesting: Truhill was breaking boundaries just be training to be a pilot. She explains how she did what was expected of a woman from her background at the time, get married quick and have two kids, then trained to be a commercial pilot. There are some charming moments when she explains how as a girl, her mum would painstakingly put her hair into Shirley Temple curls, then as soon as she was out of sight she’d jam a pilot’s helmet and goggles over the top.
Once she was working as a pilot, Jerri started doing top-secret missions for the US government, before becoming one of 60 female pilots invited to try out to become an astronaut.
Truhill explains how the women who passed the initial tests became the ‘Mercury 13’, put through a rigerous programme and stretched to physical extremes. This was in the early 1960s, all before any US citizen had been into space, so, she explains, the scientists were testing for everything. For example, they got the pilots to drink radioactive water and wait to see how long it took to go through their system.
The female pilots passed some tests better than the male astronauts-in-training, she says – for example, the men only lasted a short time in the sensory deprevation tanks before demanding to get out; the women pilots lasted hours and hours, until the scientists came to get them. Maybe some of this was to do with the extra pressure and knowledge that they had to prove themselves physically capable. The scientists said that they were better suited than men to go into space, and some thought they would be the first to go because they were smaller than the male astronauts and needed smaller life support systems. It was not to be, as politicians and Nasa quashed the notion and went for male-only astronauts.
However, the documentary, directed by Ulrike Kubatta, can seem a bit spare at times. It seems to have been based largely on one phone interview and one in-person interview, and we don’t get to see much in the way of photos, footage from the time, etc. There are long sequences of someone dressed as Truhill walking in a lunar-like desert landscape, for example. I am guessing it was hard for Kubatta to find source materials she could use, and it’s good to see Truhill’s particular story being told, but this was a weakness.
It’d have been interesting to include interviews with some of the other women, perhaps, and look at the situation in the USSR at the time – Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, the year after the Mercury 13 were rejected by Nasa – 20 years before the US eventually managed to send Sally Ride up as the first US woman in space. Mae Jemison became the first African American woman in space in 1992. Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space, but also the first non-US, non-USSR woman in space, in 1991.
There’s some interesting discussion of how pleased Truhill and the others were when Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot the shuttle (because they were pilots, this held special significance for them). But it could have done with a bit more placing the story of the Mercury 13 within the global picture and in history.
(You can see the trailer on the IMDB)