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Wally Funk Finally Gets Her Flight to Space

Wally Funk,Blue Origin,Mercury 13
Sarah Cruddas
Natalie Patane
July 13, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

Mary Wallace Funk, known to all as ‘Wally Funk,’ will soon make history.

At the age of 82 she will become the oldest person to have ever traveled to space. Flying aboard New Shephard—Wally Funk (who is also a Virgin Galactic ticket holder) was selected by Jeff Bezos to accompany him on this first crewed launch for his private space company Blue Origin. The mission is currently scheduled for July 20th.

It is a moment of reckoning from a tenacious aviation pioneer, who had in the 1960s—as part of a group of female aviators—tried to open space travel for women. Yet, in spite of the program's decision to ultimately not launch these intrepid women, Funk never gave up on her dream of spaceflight and has spent decades in the aviation industry helping to break barriers for women. She has served as the first female air safety investigator for the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB), and the first woman to be an inspector for the FAA. Now, finally, her moment to slip the surly bonds of Earth has come.

In doing so, Funk will become one of fewer than 70 women who have traveled to space.

The optimistic view of space exploration is that we go to space for all humanity. The reality on the ground doesn’t always reflect those aspirations.

Though recent astronaut classes have shown better gender diversity—NASA’s 2017 class had five women and seven men—and astronauts such as Peggy Whiston, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch have garnered a following for their work, there is still some way to go before women are breaking spaceflight records at a rate comparable to men.

But today’s female pioneers owe a debt to the dawn of the space age, and an earlier era of women who dreamed of space for themselves. 

Dubbed the ‘Mercury 13’ in popular culture, it is only in recent years—through books and documentaries—that the endeavors of this group of female aviators in the 1960s have come to light. The women behind the label; Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, Wally Funk, and Irene Leverton were some of the best female pilots of the era, who like their male counterparts dreamed of going ‘higher, faster, and further.’

While NASA had in 1959 selected seven men to become the first to hold the title of ‘astronaut,’ some scientists believed that women might be better suited to the rigors of spaceflight. In particular, their smaller size and weight meant they might cope better in the cramped conditions of a space capsule.

And so under the guidance of Dr. William Lovelace—an aerospace physician who had also been involved in the testing of the Mercury 7—25 female aviators were subjected to the same medical tests as men. Enduring everything from water injected into their ears, lying on tilt tables to test circulation, and being placed in isolation chambers for hours on end.

The extreme testing owed to the lack of knowledge as to how the human body would react in space.

Of 25 tested, 13 passed. They ranged in age from 23 to 41 - the eldest Jane Hart was a mother of 8 who had gained her pilot's license during World War II. All these women were capable—it was even said that many of the women attained higher scores than their male counterparts. The next step was for Dr. Lovelace to take the women to the Naval School of Aviation in Florida, for further assessments.

But with just days to go, and at a point where some of the women had left their jobs, the testing was canceled. The Navy wanted a sign-off from NASA to proceed, but this was not NASA-funded testing, and at the time the agency had never shown any public interest in sending women to space.

The protests from the women would result in a public hearing in 1962, where they fought for the right to apply to be astronauts. But the answer from NASA, backed up by some of Mercury 7—including the American Hero John Glenn—was that "astronauts needed to have experience flying fast jets."

And this was a job that women were not permitted to do.

Instead, the women were left to watch from the sidelines as American men pushed the frontiers of humanity in space and a Soviet—Valentina Tereshkova—would take the title of the first woman in space. It would take until the class of 1978 for women to finally be selected as NASA astronauts. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space flying aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1983 and in 1995, astronaut Eileen Collins broke a new barrier by not just traveling to space, but serving as the pilot of her mission.

While it would be easy to say that the story of the Mercury 13 is simply a case of ‘Right stuff. Wrong time’, what the tale really highlights is all the talent that has been left behind because of gender stereotypes and discrimination. While their names might not be as well-known as other female pioneers in space exploration, it was the determination of these women which helped pave the way toward equality in space.

As this decade ushers in another leap forward for women in space—as the Artemis program bids to land the first woman on the Moon—it will take us one step closer to a future where women are no longer breaking boundaries for other women, but for all of humanity.

Sarah Cruddas
Natalie Patane
July 13, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)