She should have gone to the Moon…but wasn’t ‘monkey enough’?

She couldn't shatter the glass ceiling to space...
She couldn't shatter the glass ceiling to space...
Exactly 40 years ago, on 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off carrying three American astronauts to the Moon. Four days later, history was made when Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., become the first human beings to set foot on another celestial body, while their colleague Michael Collins circled the Earth.

When Armstrong stepped on the Moon, he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind“. Man on the Moon was very much the news highlight of 1969, and at the time, the term ‘mankind’ was understood to include women as well. The more gender-neutral term ‘humankind’ would come into popular use some years later.

Beginning with Apollo 11, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, all of who returned safely – as did the astronauts of the disaster-stricken mission, Apollo 13. Without exception, all of them were white and male. While they were all highly qualified, disciplined and trained men who had worked long and hard to earn their places in history, they did not fully represent the diversity of their nation, let along of the planet whose emissaries they were portrayed to be.

Women, celebrated across cultures as holding half the sky, took a long time to travel beyond the sky to outer space.

Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) had become the first woman in space early on in 1963, it took the Americans another 20 years to have their first woman astronaut: Sally Ride, who traveled to Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle in June 1983.

A recent British documentary reveals how America could have sent a woman to the Moon during the Apollo programme. It reveals, belatedly, one of history’s great might-have-beens.

She Should Have gone To The Moon (58 mins, 2008), written and directed by Ulrike Kubatta isn’t quite story that the American space agency NASA would like to be reminded of as it marks Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary.

Jerri Truhill, astronaut in training: Not 'monkey enough' for men who ran NASA?
Jerri Truhill, astronaut in training: Not 'monkey enough' for men who ran NASA?
The film tells the astonishing story of the pilot and pioneer, Jerri Truhill, who was trained in 1961, as part of NASA’s top secret Mercury 13 programme, to become on of the first woman astronauts. The documentary is a lyrical journey propelled by childhood aspirations, shattered dreams and a lifelong battle against female sterotypes and male prejudice.

Truhill tells how the women outperformed men in all the training tests (including water tank isolation) but how ultimately, the authorities, with the approval of President Johnson, stipulated that they would “rather send monkeys into space than a woman”.

In the film, the tough talking and sharp witted Jerri Truhill looks back at her compelling life via a phone call with the film-maker. This conversation becomes the catalyst for the director’s imagining of key events in Truhill’s potent narrative and inspires a journey to meet the heroine in Texas. Along the way the film-maker places herself in Truhill’s story, first wandering across the surreal landscape of White Sands and then suspended in zero gravity inside a water tank.

Included are staged scenes, dreamt-up moments from Truhill’s story, which evoke the popular melodrama of 1950s American cinema. These fictional moments bridge the gaps of time and distance between the filmmaker and her subject. Their stylised and dreamlike quality is counterpointed by shots from both Truhill’s and NASA’s film archive. The various strands produce the film’s heady timeline, as they circle through real and imagined spaces, past and present.

I can’t locate any part of the film that allows embedding on to WordPress blog platform. But you can watch official trailer for She should have gone to the Moon on IMDB

On LEEDVD.TV’s YouTube channel, I found this segment of another documentary named Rocket Girl, but Google does not bring up too much other info about this film.

Watch Rocket Girl, part 1

Read American National Public Radio’s coverage: Women’s Space Dreams Cut Short, Remembered

Read NASA’s own website profiles of women’s accomplishments in space

Seven of the “Mercury 13” gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in 1995. In the photo below, from left to right, are: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. They came to watch Eileen Collins become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. NASA has come a long way.

Mercury 13 women reunion in 1995 - NASA image
Mercury 13 women reunion in 1995 - NASA image

As I wrote in May 2009, the path-breaking TV series Star Trek, which started airing on television in the US in September 1966, was way ahead of reality. When neither the mainstream television nor the space programme reflected America’s true diversity, Star Trek created a multi-ethnic crew for the Starship Enterprise, roaming the universe in the 23rd century. It included an African-American woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and a super intelligent alien, the half-Vulcan Spock.

Reality took a long time catching up. It was only in August 1983 that Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Another nine years passed before Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to go to space, when she joined a Space Shuttle mission in September 1992. In fact, she cited Star Trek character Uhura as an influence in her decision to pursue a career in space.

Multi-cultural crews did not become commonplace until the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational. Space travel has yet to reach the utopian ideals of Star Trek.

Images related to ‘She should have gone to the Moon’ courtesy Ulrike Kubatta. Other images courtesy NASA

From Nyota Uhura to Michelle Obama: The inspiration continues!

Inspiration across generations...
Inspiration across generations...

Actress Whoopi Goldberg was a child of 10 when the original series of Star Trek started its first broadcast on NBC in the US in September 1966. The futuristic science fiction series – about a spaceship travelling across space and time in the 23rd century in search of new civilisations – was to leave a lasting impression on many members of her generation.

In Whoopi’s case, it went beyond just general inspiration. Something in the show seemed incredible to the African-American child growing up in a land where colour and race were still divisive factors. She recalls running around the house, screaming: “Hey mom, look! There’s a negro woman on TV — and she ain’t cooking dinner!”.

‘That woman’ was the character Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. This anecdote is captured in the 1997 documentary Trekkies, which explored the global fandom inspired by the show, which has gone on to become a franchise covering several TV series, 11 feature films (including the latest ‘origins’ film released on 8 May 2009), an animation series, as well as numerous books, video games and computer games. As Forbes magazine once noted, the allure is comparable only to that of Star Wars.

Sometimes, less is more!
Sometimes, less is more!
Uhura featured as the communications officer on board the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series, and the first six Star Trek films. She is significant as one of the first major black characters on an American television series and for engaging in a then-taboo interracial kiss with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). In the 2009 film, a younger Uhura is portrayed by actress Zoë Saldana.

The inclusion of Uhura, a black woman, in a critical technical position was certainly idealistic in the mid 1960s when the American civil rights movement was still agitating for equal rights for African Americans. She one of the first black women featured in a major television series not playing a servant; her prominent supporting role as a female black bridge officer was unprecedented.

As I’ve just noted in another blog post: “At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas, Gene Roddenberry created a multi-ethnic crew for the Enterprise, including an African woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and—most notably—an alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. In the second season, reflecting the contemporaneous Cold War, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member.”

But was the character, donning a sexy mini skirt uniform, somewhat tokenistic? Perhaps. But it still had considerable inspirational value – which is never to be under-estimated.

In fact, after the first season of Star Trek, Nichols had become frustrated at her relative lack of lines. At one point, she considered quitting the show, but was talked out of this decision by the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.. MLK told her that a show that depicted a black woman working alongside whites in a position of importance was important for the goal of racial equality.

Another version of the story has MLK telling Nichols that he was a big fan of the series, and she “could not give up” since she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country. It is also often reported that Dr. King added that “Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again.”

After NBC executives cancelled Star Trek in 1969, Nichols went on to star in other roles — and also worked for NASA in a campaign to encourage African Americans to join the space service. Among those she helped recruit was Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly aboard the Space Shuttle, in September 1992. Jemison has cited Star Trek as an influence in her decision to pursue a career in space.

Goldberg: From inspiration to a regular role
Goldberg: From inspiration to a regular role
Meanwhile, things came full circle for actress Whoopi Goldberg, who was to get her own regular role in Star Trek: The Next Generation whose original run lasted from 1987 to 1994. In this successor series, she played the recurring El-Aurian female character Guinan.

Things have also moved on in the real world, where Barack Obama is now the President of the United States, with Michelle Obama as one of the most influential – if not powerful – women in the world. On 28 April 2009, CNN ran a story titled Why Michelle Obama inspires women around the globe. It noted: “Those who focus on Michelle Obama’s impact on America are underestimating her reach. The first lady is inspiring women of color around the globe to look at themselves, and America, in fresh ways.”

There is no linear link between Nyota Uhura and Michelle Obama, and the real world has very far to go to reach the utopian ideals of Star Trek. But the very fact that we have the Obamas where they are is an assurance that things can slowly move towards Gene Roddenberry’s grand vision.