Wally Funk, astronaut—in—waiting

by Sara Allen

 

Our story – for however extraordinary, this is a true story - begins 50-odd years ago, when thirteen women joined a space program which could have changed history. 

In the 50s and 60s NASA tried to prepare men for the then entirely unknown environment of space. The programme, a series of arduous and invasive tests designed to push body and mind to their absolute limit, has become the stuff of legend.

William Randolph Lovelace II, former Flight Surgeon and later chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, helped develop the tests for NASA's male astronauts and was curious to know how women would do taking the very same tests. 

Whether motivated by curiosity about the comparable physiological capacity of women, or desire for equality (the former seems more likely), Lovelace set up a privately funded programme – it was never part of NASA, never met as a group - for women. 

The records of over 700 accomplished female pilots were reviewed and the very best were invited to participate. Others joined through a women’s pilot association, and some were so inspired by the prospect that they tracked down Lovelace and volunteered. Which is how in 1961, Wallace “Wally” Funk, a 22-year-old aviator, found herself in an astronaut test centre in Albuquerque. 

Now 79, Wally Funk - a “whirlwind of energy and laughter, positivity and determination” who has “devoted her life to inspiring girls and women to a career in STEM” - is the subject of a new book by Sue Nelson, herself a fairly extraordinary, award-winning science journalist and broadcaster.

Wally and Sue met in America 20 years ago while Sue was making documentary “Right Stuff Wrong Sex”. Professional interest became friendship, but Sue turned down offers to write a conventional autobiography of this deeply unconventional woman. Instead she has written almost a travelogue - Wally Funk's Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer - a story of a road trip in which they meet astronauts and space scientists and the female engineer in charge of Europe’s Mars rover. “It contains laughter, a story arc, occasional bickering” says Sue, “I wanted people to get the Wallyness of it all.”

“I wanted people to get the Wallyness of it all.” Sue Nelson

“I wanted people to get the Wallyness of it all.” Sue Nelson

 Wallyness

It was at 16, when a broken back ended her dream of skiing in the Olympics, that Wally turned to flying (presaged by an attempt at five when she jumped off the family barn wearing her Superman cape).

Wally brought her flying skill and determination to those rigorous tests. The worst she recalls was “when they put that ice water in my ear for 15 seconds and they had me strapped down. [That] really hurt... but I was not a cry-baby.” Others included swallowing three feet of rubber hose so her stomach acids could be tested, drinking a pint of radioactive water, and having 18 needles stuck into her head to record brain waves.

All of the volunteers were placed in sensory deprivation tanks. The participants had to float, in isolation, in the dark, on their back, in a tank of water matching their exact body temperature for as long as possible. “Pretty soon, you lose all your senses,” said Wally. “I couldn’t feel, taste, touch or hear. All of my senses were taken away from me.

When the researchers told Funk she could exit the tank, they asked her how long she thought she’d been in the water. Wally guessed three or four hours. Astonishingly Funk was in the tank, without hallucinating, for 10 hours and 35 minutes. Notably, Funk scored significantly higher than John Glenn  in the same test. (Incidentally, in February 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.) 

“I always knew I could do anything I wanted to... I was ahead of my time in everything I did.”

“I always knew I could do anything I wanted to... I was ahead of my time in everything I did.”

Wally and the twelve other women who make up the ‘Mercury Thirteen’ passed their tests and were qualified to go into space, significantly outperforming the men in the parallel programme. The reason, unsurprisingly, you probably haven’t heard this story before is because they were never able to go. 

NASA’s leadership was firmly against the idea of female astronauts. So in 1962 – this is pre-1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made discrimination illegal - the women argued their case before Congress in a deeply contentious hearing at which John Glenn, who had just completed that manned orbit, said “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized…. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. 

Congress and Vice President Lyndon Johnson sided with John Glenn and what Wally called the “good old boys’ network”, deciding to allow NASA to continue its men-only recruitment policy.

It would be another 20 years before NASA allowed women into the astronaut program and more than 20 years before the first female astronaut, Sally Ride, made it to space.

 

Humility 

Amazingly, the frustration that you or I might feel reading this really isn’t Wally’s view. Sue says Wally simply isn’t bitter, that she refuses to badmouth anyone who was part of this process. “I tried numerous times to get her to open up, almost leading her to confess bitterness. Maybe some of the other others might have felt that way, but not Wally.”

Instead Sue speaks of Wally’s humility – “Does she see herself as an icon? As a feminist? I know that she is incredibly modest given what she has achieved” – but in my view it is important to place her amongst a history in which women’s achievements are fully engaged with, re-narrated, where we hear the whole story.

While we talked the significance of these stories, Sue spoke about Florence Nightingale – we are taught about her nursing and compassion. Her much lesser known story is just how important she was in engineering and designing buildings to reduce infection, dramatically reducing death rates. And of Hedi Lamarr, who MGM called “the most beautiful woman in the world”, who depicted film’s first female orgasm, and was famous for her outrageous love life. Hedi Lamarr was an inventor and her greatest work - “frequency hopping” – enabled secret US Navy communication in the Second World War and is the basis of widely-used technologies like Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi. 

Sue’s point is that stories like Wally’s, like Florence Nightingale’s and Hedi Lamarr’s, change our collective mindset, and show what women are capable of.

And she notes, as an aside, that unless we make a change in the curriculum, we still going to be in this situation in 20 years’ time.

 

“You know me honey, I want to be the fastest and the best”.

So, what of the hugely accomplished and resilient Wally? Wally has spent her life flying and giving talks and inspiring others to careers in STEM and most incredibly of all travelling all over the States so that she could complete the final phases of the astronaut tests (including a high-altitude chamber and experiencing a centrifuge) to be ready for NASA’s call to become a female astronaut. 

The call never came.  But Wally is absolutely determined to make it up there: “I’m going to space eventually”. And we should believe her. She’s bought a ticket for one of Virgin Galactic’s first commercial spaceflights. First passenger flights are expected within the next 18 months. Wally will, at last, be an astronaut.

 

 

Sue’s book, Wally Funk's Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer (The Westbourne Press) is a great read, Christmas or otherwise.