Since she was five years old, Wally Funk has always known what she wanted to do.
She wanted to fly. As a young pilot, she even took the astronaut fitness tests organized by NASA’s unofficial flight surgeon, W. Randolph Lovelace II, becoming one of 13 women pilots identified by Lovelace and later featured in Life magazine in 1963 after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. (In the 1990s, a television producer dubbed the group the “Mercury 13,” a moniker invented to mirror the first NASA astronauts’ use of Mercury 7.) Later this month, Funk will finally get the chance to make the flight into space that was not possible for her in the 1960s. On July 1, 2021, Jeff Bezos announced that she will be an honored guest aboard the first human spaceflight conducted by aerospace company Blue Origin, when its New Shepard spacecraft launches on a suborbital flight scheduled for July 20, 2021. After being the youngest of the female pilots tested by Dr. Lovelace (she was in her early 20s at the time), Funk will become the oldest person to fly into space at age 82. She never gave up on her dream.
Funk inherited the desire to fly, she says, from her mother, who wanted to go up on a barnstorming flight when she was 17 in Olney, Illinois. But her father (Funk’s grandfather) said no, declaring, “Ladies do not fly.” A generation later, Funk credits an inherited desire—and her mother’s consistent support—for her own passion for flight. As she recalled in an interview, “That’s been my life. I have been in aviation since I was 16 and soloed and got all of my licenses.”
She learned to fly at Stephen’s College in Columbia, Missouri, at age 16, before joining the “Flying Aggies” at Oklahoma State University. Over the following decades, she dedicated herself to flying and promoting aviation.
To pilots, Funk is well known as a skilled pilot and enthusiastic flight instructor. She became a flight inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and an Air Safety Investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In time, she also turned her decades of aviation experience, including her work as an accident investigator, into a dynamic presentation about aviation safety. Striding across the stage in her navy blue uniform, she held ballrooms full of experienced pilots rapt as she offered practical lessons about avoiding common mistakes and remembering safety practices. But for most of the world, she’s best known as one of the women pilots tested for possible astronaut fitness at the Lovelace Foundation, very early in her career.
Funk learned about the privately funded, but never secret, women’s astronaut fitness testing program from reading a story in Life magazine about Jerrie Cobb’s success as the first candidate in 1960. As she recalled, “So, [I was] thinking, ‘Oh! This is really what I want to do!’ I mean, there weren’t a lot of things back in the ‘60s for girls to do.” After she wrote to the doctors involved, she became the youngest candidate to be tested.
The women pilots invited to take the astronaut tests funded by aviator Jacqueline Cochran were never really a group at the time. Rather, each woman took the tests on her own, or at most, in a pair, being slotted into available openings at the Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In many ways, this makes the achievements of Funk and the other women pilots all the more remarkable. Funk remembered how she barely saw her testing companion, “I only saw her for a fleeting moment the first day.” Even without any camaraderie to provide moral support, Funk did well on the myriad tests that the Lovelace Foundation had constructed to detect any possible physical vulnerability in a potential space traveler. She was one of only three women to undergo a second phase of testing: psychological examinations at the VA hospital in Oklahoma City, which included time in a sensory deprivation tank.
But in 1961, as the women were preparing to gather as a group in Pensacola, Florida, for advanced aeromedical tests that would include time in jet aircraft, they received telegrams announcing that Lovelace’s private project was abruptly cancelled. Because NASA did not have an official women’s astronaut program, the Navy withdrew its permission to use its facilities. Despite two days of House Subcommittee hearings in Washington, DC, in 1962, the program was never resumed.
But Funk was not ready to give up on her dream of spaceflight. On her own, she contacted the El Toro Marine Base in California and took advanced aeromedical tests there, much as Jerrie Cobb had earlier. She later underwent additional tests at the University of Southern California, including several cycles on the human centrifuge. Because no one made G-suits for women, she assembled her own makeshift one using corsets and girdles. Even as time passed, she stayed physically fit and engaged with emerging developments in spaceflight.
Her place in the pantheon of aviation heroes has been secure for years. In 2006, Funk appeared at the National Air and Space Museum as the featured speaker for the GE Aviation Lecture, talking about her accomplished career. But she never stopped wanting to fly much higher. When I first interviewed her in 1997 for the project that became my book Right Stuff, Wrong Sex—a history of Lovelace’s women’s astronaut training project—her excitement about going into space was palpable. Her words then were, “I knew what I wanted to do and I want to go into space. And I will still go into space. …And if I am a hundred [years old], I’m still going into space. Somehow.”
When I heard the news that Funk will finally live her dream, I was reminded of the good wishes for John Glenn spoken when he became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. They are fitting yet again.
Godspeed, Wally Funk.
The quotes in this account are from an interview done by the author in 1997 for her book Right Stuff, Wrong Sex.