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Bookshelf: Wally Funk's Race to Space

One of America's 'Mercury 13' trainee astronauts, Wally Funk was the female pilot who led the way for women in space. Author Sue Nelson interviews the pioneer for her latest book, Wally Funk's Race for Space

By Sue Nelson
Published 2 Apr 2019, 12:08 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 12:18 BST
Wally Funk aged 22 at Fort Sill military base
Wally Funk aged 22 at Fort Sill military base

"I decided to become an astronaut after seeing an article in Life magazine. It was about Jerrie Cobb, a pilot, like me. She had passed a private programme called Woman in Space, led by Dr Randolph Lovelace. He had tested the Mercury 7 astronauts for NASA. The Woman in Space tests were exactly the same, and he wanted more women to take part. I volunteered and took the tests in February 1961. I was 22 years old. Thirteen of us passed.

The Mercury 13 women didn't know each other. We took the tests in pairs, not in a group like the Mercury 7 guys. My partner dropped out really quickly, so I did the tests alone. We were all pilots, but many of them were married with kids. I was single and married to my airplane.

Vice president Lyndon B Johnson and Jackie Cochran put a stop to the Woman in Space programme. Johnson sent a letter to NASA and wrote: 'Let's stop this now.' It was a good old boys' network in the 1960s. Cochran was a famous pilot; she helped fund the programme but spoke against us at a government hearing. She said it wasn't the right time to send women to space. It stopped the other girls, but not me. I applied to NASA several times, but they turned me down because I didn't have an engineering degree.

I've been an aviator all my life. I learned to fly when I was 18 and was paid to fly at 20. I've been a chief pilot about five or six times and have also been a safety inspector and air crash investigator.

The closest I've been into space was when I flew on Concorde. We reached 80,000 feet. Next year, however, I hope to go into space on a Virgin Galactic spaceplane as I've bought a ticket. I'll finally be an astronaut."

Interview: Sue Nelson.

Wally's story is told in Netflix documentary, Mercury 13. Wally Funk's Race for Space, by Sue Nelson, is published by The Westbourne Press, RRP: £16.99

Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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