Nevertheless, She Persisted: Wally Funk

“So do we have a little bit of information here on how well do women do things? How well did they come across on the Mayflower? Terrific. How well did they go across the prairies and settle the West in their covered wagons? Great. Big families. Didn’t think anything about it. Why can’t we fly and go into space?… [N]obody wants to fail, and failure is not a part of my makeup. I do the best I can do and I kick as many doors in as I possibly can, no matter where I go.”

 

Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk (1939-    )

When she was five years old, Wally Funk donned her Superman cape and jumped off the roof of her family’s barn, in what she calls her “my first try at flying, just pure flying.”

Well, she didn’t so much fly as fall into a fortunately placed haystack. But she kept trying.

She built model airplanes from kits her father would bring home from the small general store he owned. She asked her mother to drive her to a small local airport so she could study the planes there. (Her mother, who also loved flying but had been forbidden from flight lessons by her parents, happily complied.)

Wally Funk got her private pilot’s license while attending a two-year college, then studied aviation at Oklahoma State University.  She wanted to become a commercial pilot, but two major airline companies rejected her application… because there were no women’s bathrooms at their schools for pilots.

Funk was conducting flight training for U.S. Army personnel at Fort Sill, Oklahoma when she heard that a private concern, with the support of NASA, was conducting tests for women astronauts, as a kind of complement to the male astronaut training program already underway.

She signed right up — after obtaining a special dispensation; at age 21, she was technically too young to apply — and with twenty-four other women, went through a battery of tests designed to replicate experience in space and zero gravity.

As part of the testing, Funk drank a pint of radioactive water.

She swallowed a three-foot length of rubber hose.

She spent ten and a half hours in an isolation tank. (A record.)

She scored higher on her tests than John Glenn, who eventually became the first American to orbit the earth.

Wally Funk and twelve other women passed the rigorous tests–they later became known as “The Mercury 13”– but before they could continue training, the order came down: all astronauts had to have experience as an Air Force pilot.

Since women were not permitted to be Air Force pilots at the time, this de facto meant no woman could qualify to be an astronaut.

Funk was disappointed, but she continued working as a flight instructor, and eventually became the first woman inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration as well as the first woman to serve as an Aircraft Accident Investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

And she has booked and paid for a ticket on Virgin Galactic’s first tourist flight into space, whenever that may happen.

She’ll wait.

Sources:

Butler, Carol, interviewer. NASA Headquarters Oral History Project, Edited Oral History Transcript: Wally Funk, , July 18, 1999.

Krum, Sharon. “Space Cowgirl,” The Guardian (UK), April 2, 2002.

Stolley, Richard B. “Woman in Space: The Long-Delayed Flight of Wally Funk,” Time, April 18, 2012.

Background images in my drawing of Wally Funk come from October Afternoon’s “Rocket Age” series of scrapbook papers.

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