She Should Have Gone To The Moon is a documentary from film-maker Ulrike Kubatta. This 2008 film presents a uniquely personal chapter in the history of the space race. It 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 one of the First Lady Astronauts. The documentary is a lyrical journey propelled by childhood aspirations, shattered dreams and a lifelong battle against stereotypes and male prejudice. In this post Ulrike gives a unique insight into her experiences of making the film.
I’m as fascinated by space travel as the next person, but wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a space buff. I had never heard of the Mercury 13, nor did I have any idea that NASA had trained a group of female “would be” astronauts as early as 1961. But then I came across a picture of Jerri Truhill in a newspaper, which accompanied a short article about her and the group’s secret training programme at the Lovelace clinic in New Mexico, USA.
At the time I was working on film project about Roller Derby and was very tuned into the idea of women as rebels and trailblazers. So here was Jerri, dressed in her tight white flying suit, perched on the wing of her plane, looking like the ultimate 50s ideal of a future space woman. I was immediately hooked!
A year later I managed to contact Jerri online and we began to connect over a series of lengthy emails. At this point I had not yet secured any funding for the project and couldn’t afford to go into production. Instead I decided to conduct an interview over the phone and record it. Jerri didn’t disappoint; her recollections of her life events, her ambition to fly and go into space, were entertaining, witty and poignant.
Once I received funding from the Arts Council England, I was able to build on my initial research and begin shooting. In terms of the look and the feel of the film, I was keen to go beyond the traditional documentary format.
The phone interview provided a springboard for the film’s structure and helped to shape its narrative. I was particularly interested in the fact that Jerri never fulfilled her ambition to travel into space and that she’s left to exit the earth’s atmosphere only via her imagination. This became a central point for me in shaping the film.
I found a visual translation of this idea in White Sands, a huge national park in New Mexico, which consists of large dunes made from gypsum. Part of it also serves as an alternative landing site for space shuttles and made for a perfect location.
In the film, a female figure (myself) wearing a replica of Jerri’s flying suit, repeatedly wanders through the white landscape. While this footage symbolises the imagined characteristics of space and a promise of an alternative existence, the figure is left in perpetual limbo and never reaches her final destination.
The figure’s journey through White Sands is interwoven with a number of stylized vignettes. These are dreamt up moments that are inspired by Jerri’s narration, they didn’t necessarily happen as such; rather they are my personal extensions of her story.
Although the central person in the documentary is of course Jerri and her struggle to conquer the unknown, it is also about my fascination with her. Unlike Jerri, who has a very pragmatic, almost scientific take on the events, I have a very romanticised view of her and her life. This tension is expressed in the way that the film constantly weaves together various layers that mix media, timelines and archive with very personal footage.
My ambition for She Should Have Gone To The Moon was to reveal Jerri’s story and both the dilemmas and opportunities experienced by her generation of women. Still, her reflections on her life strike a cord with a large range of viewers.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary since the first Apollo moon landing, but sadly Jerri Truhill and the Mercury 13 did not receive much exposure in the media at all.
After spending several days with Jerri in Dallas, I found her to be a truly inspirational woman. However, it struck me that despite all the disappointment she is certainly not a bitter person. She made quite a point of telling me that her career as a pilot and her involvement in the Mercury 13 programme presented only one part of her life. The other was filled with being a model, raising her disabled stepson and running an antiques business.
Ulrike Kubatta’s films focus thematically on ideas of heroic figures, their construction and representation. Within this field, her films draw on historical events and individuals and transform those into experimental narratives, using formal elements derived from particular film genres, cinematic conventions and popular culture. Dream Soldier, her current film, which is in the pre-production stage, explores questions around identity, authenticity and the experience of history as an elaborate fantasy and construct. Kubatta’s films have been screened internationally in galleries, museums, cinemas and film festivals. She Should Have Gone To The Moon, has won two awards at international film festivals. The documentary is part of the collection of several libraries and museums, including, NYU and the International Women’s Museum in Dallas.