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Wally Funk's Dream Of Space Flight

Wally Funk (second from left) with six of the other first women astronaut trainees, in 1995.
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NASA
Wally Funk (second from left) with six of the other first women astronaut trainees, in 1995.

When nearly everyone else believed Wally Funk would never get a shot at space, she persisted. For years, Funk has pursued commercial space flight – but every opportunity fizzled.

Funk’s biggest disappointment, however, occurred decades ago.

In 1961, Dr. Randy Lovelace, head of NASA’s Life Sciences, created a secret program to test top-flight women pilots for astronaut viability. He invited 25 women to take the same rigorous physical exams he'd administered to Alan Shepard and other Mercury men.

Funk’s name wasn’t on the initial list. But when the story broke, she wrote Lovelace directly, asking to be considered. Funk was only 22, but already had racked up accolades and 3,000 flying hours – more than three times the required amount.

Lovelace invited her, and she was one of 13 women who passed the physical exams, including the bicycle test.

“How long has anyone stayed on the bike?” she asked clinicians.

Ten minutes, they said. Rigged up with breathing tubes and electrodes, Funk powered through to 11 before falling to the floor in a heap.

"I beat John Glenn," she later boasted, a claim that is not entirely accurate. The test evaluated aerobic capacity – time on the stationary bike being only one factor. According to records, Glenn and two other women did slightly better.

But what Funk hasn’t always understood about science, she’s made up for in grit and determination – even while people labeled her quest a pipe dream.

Sexism put an end to those early, visionary astronaut tests for women. NASA decided women would impede the men and cost too much. Congress decreed only military jet test pilots could be astronauts. Although the Mercury 13 fought back, it would take two decades before Sally Ride launched.

But now, it’s Wally Funk’s turn. When the 82-year-old finally lifts off, she’ll be realizing a lifelong dream. And she’ll also be carrying with her the story of the Mercury 13, a story about sexism and bigotry.

And a reminder that equal opportunity makes the world – and outer space – a better place.

Martha Ackmann, author of "The Mercury 13," has known Wally Funk for decades. Ackmann lives in Leverett, Massachusetts.

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