Mercury 13's Wally Funk Fights for Her Place in Space
National Geographic Today
|July 9, 2003|
At 64, Wally Funk, a test pilot who's a legend in American aviation, is still fighting for an opportunity to go into space.
In 1961 Funk, from Taos, New Mexico, was among the Mercury 13, the first 13 women slated to enter the "Women in Space" programuntil NASA abruptly cancelled it later that year.
The Soviet Union sent a woman astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, into space in 1963. But not until 1983 would Sally Ride break the space gender barrier for American women when she went aloft on the Challenger STS-7 mission.
Eileen Collins claimed two firsts: first female pilot of the space shuttle in 1995, and also the first woman shuttle commander in 1999.
Today women fly on nearly all shuttle flights. But Funk has found another possible pass to space: She's the pilot of the Solaris X, an entry in the X-Prize competition.
The X-Prize offers ten million dollars to the first team to send three people to the threshold of spaceabout 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Earthand return them safely, then duplicate the feat in the same spacecraft within two weeks.
The prize is the brainstorm of aerospace entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, chairman and president of the privately funded X-Prize Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri. About 25 international private teams have registered for the competition, to take place this year and next.
"Wally should have been the first woman in space, she could have been the first woman in space," says Randa Milliron, CEO of Interorbital Systems Corporation, headquartered at the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center in California which is ground zero for half a dozen new rocket companies.
"I had never given up hope of flying in space," says Funk, who has been involved with several other commercial aerospace companies before converging with Interorbital.
In 2001, Milliron began searching for a test pilot. She had heard stories about Funk and had been trying to track her down for two years to offer her the position of "Rocket Pilot" for the Solaris Xthe only X-Prize entry from a company led by a woman, and with a woman test pilot.
"Wally is the most qualified person in the world for this as well," Milliron says. "You want somebody who can think on her feet for an activity like this. So when I fly, I want to fly with Wally." "I'm very excited at the possibility of going into space, but I won't believe it till I'm on the rocket and the engines start," says Funk.
Funk, now based in Roanoke, Texas, has prepared for this moment for nearly four decades.
She flies almost daily. Since 1960 she has been a flight instructor at aviation schools throughout the country. She now holds the title of chief pilot and is qualified to fly more than 30 types of planes including the Piper, Cessna, DC-3, Stearman, AT-6, Waco, and Navion. Shes participated in more than 10 air races, and placed, and she lectured worldwide on aviation. In 1974 she was the first woman to become an accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Women In Space?
Funk has also trained for space flight. Three years ago she experienced zero-gravity at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.
Funk's longtime hope was that the Mercury 13 program might find a new incarnation.
Originally the NASA astronaut program was restricted to menthe Mercury Seven. But after the Soviets expanded their astronaut corps to include women, NASA quietly followed suit with the Mercury 13.
The women were given exactly the same tests as the men had received just a little over a year earlier. "We were the best kept secret in the United States," Funk says.
Funk grew up as a self-confessed tomboy in Taos, New Mexico. An expert markswoman and skier, she loved the outdoorsnearly as much as airplanes. On her 16th birthday she got her pilot's license. By 20, she was the chief flight instructor for the army in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
In 1960, when Funk read in Life magazine that NASA would be training female astronauts, she hastened to write to Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, then NASA's director of space medicine, who had tested John Glen and the rest of the Mercury 7 men.
"He immediately wrote back and said 'We want you. But you're going to have to have permission from your parents at 21,'" says Funk.
Funk's mother avidly backed her daughter's passion for flight and drove her to Albuquerque for a weeklong battery of tests.
"Everything you saw in 'The Right Stuff,' that's what we did," Funk recalls. "We did a lot of tests that they don't have to do today."
The Right Stuff
In a high G-force test there were no suits designed for women. Funk improvised. "I asked my mother for a merry widow, so that I could keep the blood up in my head when you're going round and round and round at 5-Gs," Funk says. "They never blacked me out. I never did faint."
The women scored high in the tests, often surpassing the men. "Their results were so astonishing that, at the time, I didn't see how NASA could turn them down," says Donald Kilgore, who was an ear, nose and throat doctor at the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research, in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1961 and tested the women.
"All of the Mercury women were extraordinary," says Kilgore. Their performances on the tests equaled or in some cases surpassed the men of the Mercury 7. "Women were also lighter, consumed less food and oxygen and that's important when you consider it takes 1,000 pounds of thrust for every pound of payload."
Lovelace had planned to take his Mercury 13 down to Pensacola, Florida, to get the women flight experience on fighter jets when he was told by NASA to stop the programthat, in effect, the nation wasn't ready for female astronauts.
"(It was) terrible," Funk says. "I mean, they never gave us a chance to prove ourselves. We were 20 years ahead of Sally Ride and 30 years ahead of Eileen Collins."
Funk's focus is on today and the Solaris X. Tests of the rocket engine are planned for September 2003. Within 18 months, says Funk, she could be bound on her maiden sub-orbital flight. With 16,800 hours in the air, she's determined to win the prize.
"I plan to keep flying until I'm 90," Funk says. "I'm in top physical condition and I don't have any glitches."
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