Wally Funk's Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer

Wally Funk's Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer

by Sue Nelson


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Wally Funk was among the Mercury 13, the first group of American pilots to complete NASA’s 1961 Women in Space program. Funk breezed through the rigorous physical and mental tests, her scores beating those of many of the male candidates—even John Glenn. Just one week before Funk was to enter the final phase of training, the entire program was abruptly cancelled. Politics and prejudice meant that none of the more-than-qualified women ever went to space. Undeterred, Funk went on to become one of America’s first female aviation inspectors and civilian flight instructors, though her dream of being an astronaut never dimmed.
            In this offbeat odyssey, journalist and fellow space buff Sue Nelson travels with Wally Funk, approaching her 80th birthday, as she races to make her giant leap. Covering their travels across the United States and Europe—taking in NASA’s mission control in Houston and Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Funk’s ride to space awaits—this is a uniquely intimate and entertaining portrait of a true aviation trailblazer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641601306
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 435,706
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sue Nelson is an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster. A former BBC TV science and environment correspondent, Nelson also was editor of The Biologist and currently makes short films on space missions for the European Space Agency. She received a New York Festivals International Radio Program award (2017) for her documentary about the history of women in space, called Women with the Right Stuff, that was made with Wally Funk.

Read an Excerpt


I Heard Her Through the Grapevine

May 2016. It was quite a welcome and also quite an outfit. Wally Funk, arms and smile outstretched, sported a cornflower-blue flight suit adorned with NASA mission patches and a US flag on her left shoulder. The effect was part pilot, part off-duty astronaut. Not far from the real thing even if, technically speaking, she was a pilot and potential astronaut. Present career combined with a long-held ambition.

Her hair hadn't changed and was as I'd remembered: short, like mine, but white enough to cause snow blindness. Like most Americans, she appeared to have more teeth than I did. Naturally they were whiter and straighter, too. Age had not changed her figure. Tall and slim, Wally moved with the vitality and easy nimbleness of someone much younger. Now seventy-seven years old, this was our first face-to-face meeting in nineteen years and it appeared only I had aged.

"Hey, Sue," she boomed, alerting everyone in reception to our presence. "I thought I'd surprise you. Did you have a good flight? What do you think of the weather? Is it cold in England? I hear you were waiting in the wrong spot. Are you coming round to my house? Grapevine is not far from here. Go and put your suitcase in your room and come to my house. You can meet the cows."

My brain imploded from the bombardment of questions. Did she say cows?

It was difficult to collect my thoughts. After departing a chilly English spring, the Texan heat had been a shock. Then I spent over an hour, standing without shade in the harsh sunlight after a trans-Atlantic flight, waiting for the motel shuttle bus. I had been at the right exit but the wrong level of Dallas Fort Worth airport terminal. The evening ahead had been deliberately unscheduled. My plan was to shower and have an early night to recover from jet lag, before meeting Wally, who would start presenting my BBC radio documentary, in the morning.

Wally stopped a random guest and handed over her digital camera. It resembled one from the 1990s. I checked the image afterward. Wally's right arm reached skyward in celebration. I appeared dazed and confused.

"Sorry. It's been a long journey so I thought I'd have an early night."

Wally's eyes widened in disappointment. "Oh," she said plaintively.

I dropped off my suitcase in the room. When I returned to reception Wally was no longer wearing the flight suit. She had changed into trousers and a blue T-shirt showing a Space Shuttle in mid-launch, rocket boosters firing, with the Moon in the background. It was topped by a matching blue satin bomber jacket. On the back, beneath an image of the Space Shuttle on a launch gantry, were the words "Kennedy Space Center." Alongside it was embroidered "STS-93 Columbia, Eileen M. Collins, First Woman Space Shuttle Commander."

Wally's minivan, outside in the parking lot, had definitely seen better days. It resembled the Mystery Machine from Scooby-Doo: battered but ready for adventure. Stickers on the windows read "Air Force Academy," "NASA," and "We Have Friends in High Places." She patted the hood. "Done me proud. Over a hundred thousand miles."

Before she reversed, I noticed she'd forgotten to put her seat belt on. When I pointed this out, she sniffed dismissively. "I don't like 'em," she replied.

Once the van was parked in her bungalow's garage, Wally headed for the back yard. Following her, I discovered that the house backed onto a field. A herd of cattle, alerted to her presence, ambled expectantly toward the wire fence as she began feeding them from a bag through the fencing.

"Do you want a picture of me feeding the cows? The TV cameras always like that. Come and film me feeding the cows. They come right up to the fence. Do you want to feed them? They'll take the food right out of your hands."

She seemed slightly manic, perhaps because my brain was on a mental slowdown and I struggled to stay awake.

"It's okay, thanks."

"Are you sure? People normally want to film me feeding the cows. I guess it makes a nice shot."

"I don't have a film camera. It's a radio program."


There was a brief puzzled silence, as if she was processing some huge misunderstanding. "Are you sure you don't want to take a picture?" Beaten into submission, I rattled off a few photos on my iPhone and, once satisfied, she led me inside. Every surface, horizontal or vertical, was covered with memorabilia relating to either aviation or space. A propeller was nailed above the mantelpiece. There was another satin Space Shuttle jacket hung on the wall. A wooden Space Shuttle caught my eye, and there were stacks of books and framed photographs of astronauts everywhere. More worryingly, hundreds of loose photographs and highly flammable newspaper cuttings covered the electric rings on the oven.

"You'd better be careful cooking or we'll need to call 911."

"Ha!" Wally barked. "Open the door."

The oven shelves were packed with pots and pans.

"Check out the dishwasher."

I did. It was full of cleaning products.

"See — it's fine, honey," she stated cheerfully. "I don't cook."

"Not a problem. I cook but don't clean."

"Well that's perfect! We'll make a good team."

As I wandered around the living room, I noticed something else unusual. "Why do you have two televisions?"

"Because one is national and the other is permanently tuned to NASA. Never switch it off. I want to know what's going on all the time, the launches, the landings. I watch all the girls launch into space on there."

There was so much stuff it was hard to decide what to focus on next, but a miniature set of crystal glasses with matching decanter, inside a glass cabinet, seemed out of place. "They belonged to the Queen Mother."


"I used to own her Rolls-Royce," she added matter-of-factly. "The set came with the car but I decided to keep the glasses when I sold it. There's a picture of the car in the hall."

Sure enough, a framed black-and-white photograph from the 1970s revealed Wally with a boyfriend, both dressed up to the nines, next to a vintage 1951 Rolls-Royce. She was wearing a long white gown. "It was my mother's wedding dress," she said.

The man's name was Michael. He had worked at IBM and they'd been together for about eighteen months. "Did you ever marry?"

"No," Wally responded promptly. "I'm married to my plane."

She was now beside a table searching among a pile of opened envelopes. "People write to me or send pictures asking for autographs. I've stopped signing them because people were selling them on Ebay. For $200!"

She eventually found what she was looking for. "I don't normally have everything out but I did it so you could see it." It was a pack of cards issued by the International Women's Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. She opened the pack and fanned out the cards until she located one in particular. Wally was the seven of diamonds. The woman beside me, immortalized on a playing card, was gazing dreamily upward wearing a navy pilot's jacket under the title "America's first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector."

As I struggled to absorb it all, she picked up a medallion from another table covered with at least thirty more, as well as lapel pins, badges, and space-mission patches. This one was from a talk she had given to the military.

"Whenever you go to a military base they shake hands with you with a medallion in their hand," she explained, "to give to you. This one is the biggest I have. I needed to thank the commandant. Never got his card, never got his name but he gave me this wonderful coin. I got into the limousine and showed it to the driver and he said, 'You don't know who you've just met, do you?' And I said, 'No sir, I do not.' And he said: 'That's the man that killed bin Laden.'"

Welcome to Wally's world — colorful, slightly dizzying, and often totally unexpected.

"You want to film me talking about this, honey?"

"It's a radio program, Wally."

Although my intention had been to sleep within hours of arriving at the airport, I had portable equipment in my backpack and recorded her wandering around her living room commenting on the assorted fragments representing her life.

"See that pin?"

The memento was framed alongside a photograph I recognized instantly. It was from 1995 and showed seven members of the Mercury 13, including Wally in a NASA sweater, standing in front of a Cape Canaveral launch pad, gathered for a Space Shuttle launch. Wally was in between Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen and Jerrie Cobb, alongside Jerri Sloan Truhill, Sarah Gorelick Ratley, Myrtle Cagle, and Bernice Steadman. They were all the private guests of astronaut Eileen Collins.

Collins, mindful of their history, had invited the surviving female pilots from Lovelace's Woman in Space program to watch her become the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle on February 3, 1995. It brought renewed attention to the Mercury 13 as their story, once again, resurfaced in newspapers across the United States. "After thirty-four years, the right stuff," reported the front page of the February 3 edition of the Arizona Republic via an Associated Press report.

"The sex barrier has been broken," declared Ratley.

"Finally!" said Truhill.

Inside the paper, Wally was shown lighting the long, thin candles of an enormous Space Shuttle-themed birthday cake belatedly celebrating her birthday with Jessen and Ratley. She had turned fifty-six just two days earlier. The launch must have been a bittersweet present.

Next to the framed photo, behind the glass, was a small metal brooch.

"That's my Ninety-Nines pin," she said, referring to the international organization of women pilots. "It's the only bit of me that went into space," she said wistfully. "It went up with Eileen."

* * *

Two years after Eileen Collins's launch, Wally and I met for the first time. It was March 1997 and I was recording interviews for my first BBC radio documentary, Right Stuff Wrong Sex. Computers and e-mail were not in widespread use at the time, so I had tracked down as many of the Mercury 13 women as possible, together with associated interviewees, the old-fashioned way via letters, phone calls, and contacts. Several of the women had already died by then. Jerrie Cobb, the first woman to pass the tests, was working and flying in the Amazon, performing missionary work. Luckily, four of the women located agreed to be interviewed: Geraldine "Jerri" Truhill (née Sloan), Sarah Ratley (née Gorelick), Irene Leverton, and the magnificently named Wally Funk.

Irene Leverton, the first female crop duster in the US and a competitive racing pilot, was one of the oldest of the Mercury 13. Age seventy in 1997, by then she had been flying for fifty-three years and continued to fly while working as a consultant for Aviation Resource Management at her local airport. She was often taken to air shows as a child and, like Wally, made model planes. Age nine, Leverton told anyone who would listen that she was going to be a pilot.

When the call came for the tests in 1961, Leverton was flying for a company in Los Angeles. They wouldn't give her the week off. "My boss indicated if I went on this trip I was out of a job." Leverton went anyway and, sure enough, lost her job. She signed the papers and showed up at the Lovelace clinic. As the chairman of NASA's Life Sciences Committee for Project Mercury, Dr. Lovelace had helped devise America's first astronaut tests. The physical tests were brutal, putting the astronaut candidates through extreme conditions in order to prepare them for the unknown environment of space. The men who took those tests were all pilots, like the women, and became known the world over as the Mercury 7.

"I was either very naive or very intelligent," she said, "I can't figure out which one. There are a couple of things I remember. One was the ice water squirted in the ears. What they were doing was testing our ability to recover from vertigo. And they time you as I'm staring at this bright light. The eyes are shifting back and forth rapidly, and they stop. Then you can focus and the vertigo is over. That hurt."

Leverton knew that the Lovelace tests wanted to see if women could meet the same standards as the Mercury 7 astronauts. "I felt this was another barrier to push on and there hadn't been a woman in space yet," she said. "I was so egotistical, I just felt my physical condition — which was good at the time — would prove to them that women belonged in space. And if one of us could get to go, fine."

She confessed to feeling "a little angry" when phase two was canceled. "I thought, so what else is new? I thought, hmmm. Some of the gals must have done too well on this test. I always believed I could do anything. That was like the door opening, the Sun shining in, the door closing, and it got dark and it was over. Of course it was a lost opportunity, but with the ultra-conservatism in the country at the time it's just amazing that that much got done. Thank God for Dr. Lovelace and Cochran's backing." The last comment referred to the woman who broke the sound barrier, Jackie Cochran, who was helping the tests financially.

As luck would have it, Truhill, Ratley, and Wally were all going to be in the same place at the same time, attending a Women in Aviation conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. As a Texan, Truhill was on home turf and so, at her suggestion, we would record her and Ratley's interview at Truhill's home nearby. Wally was available in a separate location in the evening. Leverton's interview hadnecessitated a separate trip to Arizona, something I could justify while on a limited BBC budget by writing a few freelance print pieces for British newspapers along the way.

Despite the publicity of their presence at Collins's launch, the Mercury 13 remained relatively unknown in the late 1990s, and their interviews had a freshness to them. The women spoke clearly, simply, with heart and passion. Proud of their ambitions and flying careers, they were thoughtful about broken promises, indignant about the injustice of it all, and, in Truhill's case, tearful. I'd warmed to Truhill instantly. Feisty and outspoken, she — like all the women — had been ready to perform her patriotic duty and become an astronaut.

Geraldine "Jerri" Truhill showed me a typewritten and signed letter by W. Randolph Lovelace II, MD, from the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research in Albuquerque. It was dated September 14, 1960. "We have been informed that you may be interested in volunteering for the initial examinations for female astronaut candidates," the letter read. "These examination procedures take approximately one week and are done on a purely voluntary basis. They do not commit you to any further part in the Woman in Space Program unless you so desire."

At the time of her call-up, Truhill was part of several secret government programs. She was flight testing the first smart bomb and a military infrared system in B25s and B26s, both twin-engine bomber aircraft. When Cobb called her personally to ask if she could get away for a top-secret project, the answer was: "Sure." Nevertheless, she was surprised by Lovelace's letter when it mentioned astronaut training. "I was flabbergasted. I was taken aback because we weren't doing very well, mostly blowing up rockets on the launch pad. As far as people going into space, that seemed to me like it would be years away. But I figured if they could launch it, I wanted to fly it, whatever it was. I was hoping maybe it'd be a plane like the x-15 because women weren't allowed to fly jets at all. B25s and 26s were not to be sneezed at, but I wanted to get into jets if I could. So I volunteered."

Truhill gave me a copy of her confirmation letter too, dated March 24, 1961, asking her to come and take the tests nine days later, on April 2. By then Wally had already taken and passed her tests a few weeks earlier, but Truhill would not have known that. The first time they met was at Collins's launch over three decades later. Truhill recalled signing papers at a motel in Albuquerque. "I absolve the government from any responsibility for my death, being maimed, or losing a limb, and there's my name," she said. "I must have been out of my mind."

Truhill's father often took her on business flights as a child and she loved being in the cockpit pretending to fly. "My daddy said, 'Now if you grow up and be a registered nurse then maybe you can be a stewardess, Jerri, for an airline.' I said, 'I don't want to be a stewardess. I want to be a pilot.' I thought daddy was going to faint. He said: 'Women don't fly airplanes' and I said, 'I'm going to.' And I did."

Truhill was married with young children when the astronaut testing opportunity arose, and her husband, a decorated World War II pilot, despite originally encouraging her to fly, did not want her to take part. "We were having some other problems at the time and this rather escalated it." Her husband delivered an ultimatum: him or space. Truhill headed off for Albuquerque to take the tests.


Excerpted from "Wally Funk's Race for Space"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Sue Nelson.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Preparing for Launch ix

1 I Heard Her Through the Grapevine 1

2 Houston, We Have a Problem 43

3 Cape Canaveral 76

4 The Waiting List 107

5 An American in Paris 139

6 Spaceport America 170

7 Storage Space 201

Sources and Further Reading 237

Acknowledgments 241

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