Mercury 13's Wally Funk Fights for Her Place in Space

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" program—until 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 space—about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Earth—and 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.

Solaris X

"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 X—the 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.

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