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French filmmakers interview NMSU astronomer for documentary on women in space

Remember the Mercury 13?

Astronomy Professor Bernie McNamara shares his knowledge about NASA's Mercury 13 with a French film crew preparing a documentary about women in the space program. From left are sound man Araud Lavaleix, videographer Aymeric Alardet and director Rebecca Boulanger. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

journalist Myriam Elhadad may be too young to remember the early days of the space program, but she's done her research. That's why she and a French film crew spent a day at New Mexico State University recently as they worked on a television documentary about women in the space program.

Astronomy Professor Bernie McNamara -- to Elhadad's delight -- not only remembers the Mercury 13, he researched and wrote an article about the women who were tested by NASA in the early 1960s, and the Congressional hearings that explored the then-controversial issue of women as astronauts. The article won first prize in the Boeing Griffith Observer Science Writing Contest in 2000 and was the basis for a chapter in McNamara's book, "Into the Final Frontier: The Human Exploration of Space."

Elhadad learned of this through an Internet search and eagerly got in touch by e-mail.

"We are precisely doing a documentary about these women!" she said as she prepared to interview McNamara and visit two of his classes.

Into the classrooms with her slipped director Rebecca Boulanger, camera man Aymeric Alardet and sound man Arnaud Lavaleix.

McNamara had prepared his students ahead of time. "Who here has ever wanted to be in a French film?" he asked them.

The French crew is preparing the documentary for a satellite TV channel called Planete, which they described as the European equivalent of HBO. They traveled from East Coast to West interviewing some of the key players from the Mercury 13 drama. McNamara added another dimension.

"What is interesting for us is to have a historic point of view on that story," Elhadad said. "We would also like to show that there is a university teacher who makes a lesson on them. This is important to show that they are not forgotten."

The documentary, hosted by Claudie Haignere, one of France's most experienced astronauts and the first female European astronaut to visit the International Space Station, is scheduled to air in France before the end of the year. Typically, said director Boulanger, English versions of Planete documentaries are created for the U.S. and international markets.

For those who don't remember, and haven't taken McNamara's Astronomy 308G class, none of the Mercury 13 became astronauts. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the world's first spacewoman, in 1963. It was two decades later that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space -- as a mission specialist crew member, not as a pilot. Not until 1999 did a female astronaut, Eileen Collins, fly an American spacecraft.

But the Mercury 13 -- all accomplished aviators in their own rights, McNamara notes -- played important roles in the early history of the "manned" space program. And the French documentary project has renewed interest in the story.

Wally Funk, one of the Mercury 13 interviewed by the French crew, contacted McNamara afterward to find out more about the project.

"She's 61 and still gung-ho about going into space," he said.

Photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/mcnamara_film_crew.jpg.