Wally Funk was ready for space 60 years ago. Now she's finally going.
In June 2021, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos invited famous aviator Wally Funk to join the crew of his first Blue Origin flight taking off July 20 in Van Horn, Texas. It's the culmination of a quest that Funk began in 1960 when, fresh out of college and holding all pilot certifications except ATP (Airline Transport Pilot), the 20-year-old pilot took a job as the first female civilian flight instructor at the Fort Sill Army post in Lawton, Oklahoma. In a video posted on Instagram, Bezos asked Funk how she expects to feel once the flight is over. "I will say, Honey, that is the best thing that's ever happened to me!" Funk told him.
Funk, who lives in Grapevine, published her memoir, "Higher Faster Longer: My life in aviation and my quest for spaceflight," in 2020. Funk developed her memoir with Albuquerque, N.M., author Loretta Hall, who has written four other books about America's efforts to go to space. Hall's daughter, Bridget Grumet, is an opinion writer for the Austin American-Statesman in the USA Today Network. Here is an exclusive excerpt from "Higher Faster Longer":
It was late October 1960, and I was taking a break in the flying club at Fort Sill. The place smelled like coffee that had been kept hot too long. I picked up the new issue of Life magazine and started flipping through the pages when I saw a black-and-white photo of a woman floating on her back in a tank of water. That seemed unusual, but what really caught my eye was the headline: “Damp Prelude to Space.” Under that, a smaller headline said, “A potential lady orbiter excels in lonesome test.”
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Space was on everyone’s mind those days. Three years earlier, the Soviet Union had put the first satellite in Earth orbit, and a month later sent a living dog into orbit. Two months ago, two Russian dogs had landed safely after orbiting the Earth 17 times. It wouldn’t be long before people went into space. It had been a year and a half since NASA named America’s first space travelers — seven men who were now training to be astronauts. Last March, the Soviets announced their first group of space men. They called them cosmonauts. And here in this magazine, a woman was being tested to become an astronaut.
It wasn’t just any woman, either. It was someone I knew. Jerrie Cobb was a renowned, record-setting pilot who, like me, worked in Oklahoma. Wow, I wanted in on this action! I figured if Jerrie could do it, I could do it.
I exchanged letters with two of the doctors involved in the tests, sharing with them my list of aviation licenses and ratings. I got the reply I was hoping for in February 1961: "We have reviewed the credentials you have sent in and find that you are acceptable for these examinations." Yes! In a few weeks I reported to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Some of the tests were painful. In one, the doctors inserted a large needle into the muscle at the base of my thumb. There was a wire coming out from the back of the needle, and they pulsed an electric current through it to test how well my nerves transmitted electrical signals. My nerves must have been working well because my hand clinched and opened, clinched and opened rapidly over and over. It hurt, and my forearm muscles got very tired. I was glad when they shut down the current and pulled the needle out.
I found out what barium tastes like. Drinking the thick, chalky liquid for a series of X-rays wasn’t bad, though. Neither were the doses of castor oil or the pint of radioactive water I had to drink at other times that week. I found out, too, that barium is versatile. I had a barium enema for a different set of X-rays farther down my digestive tract. That was only one of half a dozen enemas I had to give myself in those five days.
I was X-rayed from head to toe, more than 80 images by my count. I had blood drawn, urine and stool samples taken, and EKG electrodes poked into my skin. I had to nudge the end of a three-foot-long rubber tube into my stomach by swallowing again and again. The doctors wanted to measure the acidity of my stomach fluids. I didn’t care how painful or physically exhausting any of the tests were. I wanted to be an astronaut in the worst way.
What made us the Mercury 13
I was in perfect health — something these and other elaborate tests were designed to prove. It was 1961, and I was one of two dozen women who were taking the same rigorous physical exams the first American astronaut candidates had taken two years earlier. A handful of the men became famous as the Mercury 7, this country’s first space travelers. We women who passed the physical exams became known as the Mercury 13. We never made it into space.
All of the first astronaut candidates were men. The selection criteria automatically excluded women, because women were not allowed to be military test pilots in those days. Dr. Randy Lovelace, whose Albuquerque clinic conducted the physical exams, wanted to see if women pilots could pass the same, painstaking tests. He thought female astronauts might offer some advantages over males.
Years later, Dr. Donald Kilgore, one of the supervising doctors, told a reporter with Dateline NBC, “We were told not to be easy on (the women), to give them the whole nine yards that the Mercury guys had gotten.” He also said we complained less than the men had.
In fact, there were only two differences between our tests and the guys’ tests. Anatomy caused one. A gynecological exam was added to the regimen for us. I had just turned 22, and I learned what a pelvic exam entailed. The only stirrups I had used before were on horseback.
The other difference was logistical. The guys came to the clinic in groups of six, but the women came one or two at a time. The men had more chances to compete with one another and commiserate after the most unpleasant experiences. They also had more time to sit around and wait their turns for some of the tests. Their testing sessions lasted seven and a half days. I was there alone, and my tests were crowded into five days.
The men’s program consisted of physical fitness testing at the Lovelace Clinic (what we called Phase I), psychological and psychiatric evaluation at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio (Phase II), and physical stress tests at Wright Field (Phase III). Jerrie Cobb had completed the first phase of the women's testing in February 1960 in Albuquerque and tests similar to Phases II and III in September 1960 in Oklahoma City and May 1961 in Pensacola, respectively. It was going to be a couple of months before my Phase III tests; so Jerrie helped me schedule the psychological phase starting on Aug. 3, 1961, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Oklahoma City.
Jerrie invited me and Rhea Hurrle, another pilot taking these tests, to stay at her home in Oklahoma City. She fixed up her spare bedroom as what she called a “space dormitory” with spaceship-printed bedspreads on the twin beds and solar system maps on the wall.
The test in the tank
The psychological evaluation was what you might expect. The people who interviewed me wanted to know about my life, my parents, my friends, my flying, anything I loved or hated. They couldn’t quite understand that I didn’t have any bad thoughts in my head. I was always happy.
At the end of the second day, they said, “Tomorrow, bring your swimsuit. We have a chamber of water that we want you to go in.” The little I knew about what was coming next was what I had read in that Life magazine article about Jerrie’s test. It was going to be interesting.
The next morning, I went to the hospital, and they told me to change into my swimsuit. They pointed to a door and told me there was a tank of water in that room. They gave me two pieces of foam rubber, each about the size of a brick. I was to put one of them behind my neck and one under the small of my back, and float on the water, face up. They said, “You’re going to have ear plugs to keep the water out of your ears, and the lights are going to be turned off. We want you to be very careful getting into this pool. We want you to lay there. Don’t try to do anything; don’t try to swim. Just lay there for as long as you can.” The clock above the door said it was 8:30 in the morning. I went in, and here’s this great big steel tank, about 8 feet across and 8 feet deep. I climbed up the steps and got in the pool.
I was going to have to stay still in the water or the foam pieces would shift out from under me. The pictures I saw in Life magazine of Jerrie in the tank showed that she had an inflated rubber collar around her neck and large pieces of foam rubber strapped around her hips. But I wasn’t worried about these small pieces I had. I grew up swimming and soaking in the hot springs in Taos, New Mexico. I was used to being in the water.
They turned the lights off, and it became absolutely dark. It was like my eyes were lined with black velvet. I couldn’t see anything, and the doctors couldn’t see me. It was also completely quiet in the room — not a sound. Well, that’s not quite true — I could hear a tiny whisper with each breath I exhaled. I wondered if I would be able to hear my own heartbeats, but I never did. I couldn’t feel any air movement. I couldn’t smell anything. I spread my arms out to the sides; that seemed to make me feel most comfortable.
After a couple of minutes I thought, something is wrong here. I can’t feel a thing. I slapped the surface of the water, but I couldn’t feel it. I patted my face with my wet hand, and I couldn’t feel the water on my face. I brought my hand up and dripped water from my fingers onto my face. I couldn’t feel the drops. Ah, now I realized why they had taken my temperature so often. They figured out my average body temperature and made the water and the air in that room exactly that temperature. It was humid enough that the water on my face didn’t evaporate and cool my skin. I felt like I was floating in nothing. I was in space!
A microphone was hanging a couple of inches above me so they could monitor my breathing. Some people who had taken this test in the past couldn’t stand the lack of physical sensations and started to hallucinate. The microphone would alert the doctors if I got into trouble and needed to get out quickly. They told me I could talk to them as much as I wanted, to share my thoughts or just have the comfort of talking to someone. I don’t think I talked at all during the test. I didn’t have anything to say.
I just lay there and lay there. I thought about things I had done in the past and what my future might be. I thought about being here and taking these tests, and the possibility of becoming an astronaut. I had enough money, so I wasn’t worried about that. My folks had just given me a brand new car, so I thought about that. I thought about what great parents I had bringing me up. I had a horse back in Taos, and I was doing well in my flying. I was not bored lying there. I can’t tell you to this day what all I thought about. I think I could turn my brain off. I just felt comfortable. My life was good, and I was relaxed. I think I dozed off a few times.
After a while, I heard a voice. One of the doctors said, “Wally, how do you feel?”
“I feel fantastic.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Do you have to go to the bathroom?”
I said, “I already did that.” My goodness, I’d been lying in a tank of warm water for several hours. What did he expect?
Then he said, “We’re going to turn the lights on very slowly. Get a towel on you, and come on out. Be very careful getting over the top of the tank.”
So I moved over to the place where I could reach the steps and get out of the pool. I put the towel around me and came out of the room. I turned around to look at the clock, and they had covered it up! I had no idea how long I had been in the tank. I guessed it was about four or five hours.
I went into the adjoining dressing room and put my clothes on. I came back out and sat down with the doctors. They said, “Wally, you stayed in 10 hours and 35 minutes.”
I said, “Holy cow.” It didn’t feel like that. It turned out that was a new record.
Pursuing the dream elsewhere
It turned out that NASA didn’t want any women astronauts in those days. I didn’t find that out until seven months later, when they abruptly canceled my next phase of testing. All through that long, tough physical exam and for months afterward, I believed I was on a path to actually become an astronaut. Now, suddenly, my dream of flying into space crashed hard to the ground.
But I never gave up my dream of spaceflight. I held out for the future. I kept applying to NASA. I kept trying to better myself. I kept myself in top physical condition. I seized any opportunity I could to get more testing, to prove my capabilities as well as to learn about the challenges of space travel. After being turned down four times by NASA, I decided I would just have to find another way.
In the spring of 1991, I spent three days participating in the Space Academy educational program. It was held at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, near Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
We were divided into two groups that would work together for the rest of the camp. The groups alternated using several space simulators. One was the “five degrees of freedom” chair. The chair was mounted on a stand that glided over the floor on a cushion of air, so it could move freely in the front-to-back and side-to-side directions. I could pull myself along a practice wall and use tools as if I were working in zero gravity. When I used a wrench to tighten a bolt, my chair swung in the opposite direction just as my body would react in weightlessness on a spacewalk. I found out that working without gravity is tricky.
We did some more space simulation exercises the next day, too. One was a ride on the multi-axis trainer. It was like sitting at the center of a giant gyroscope while it twirled randomly on all three axes. It’s a good thing I was strapped in. I knew how to keep my vision focused on the control panel as I tried to steer out of the quickly changing motions. It was fantastic. I hated to get out of the seat when my session was over. I wanted to keep going.
In 2000, I accepted an opportunity to train for five days at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. We were taken to Chkalovsky Airfield for a series of 10 parabolic flight segments that would produce a total of five minutes of weightlessness. For each segment, the pilot of the Ilyushin-76 airplane would climb to 35,000 feet and then dive steeply to 15,000 feet. During that time, we would be in free fall inside the cargo bay and be essentially weightless. Thirty seconds at a time sounds really short, but it’s enough time to have great fun. I had been practicing doing maneuvers in a swimming pool, so I knew what I wanted to try.
As we went through the rest of our 10 segments, I tried my practiced maneuvers — rolls, pinwheels, tumbling, even flying like Superman. It felt different than what I practiced, because there was no resistance from water like there is in a swimming pool. It was an amazing feeling of freedom. I wished it would never end.
Although I was serious about pursuing spaceflight, I wasn’t single minded. I had a life to live! In 1965, I bought a VW van and traveled through Europe, western Asia and Africa for two and a half years. In 1971, I became the Federal Aviation Administration’s first female inspector. At the end of 1974, the National Transportation Board hired me as its first female accident investigator. I investigated 450 aviation accidents 10 years. After that, I worked as a chief pilot and flight instructor; I gave talks about aviation safety; I competed in air races; I won awards for single-action shooting historic reenactments; and I built my own adobe house in New Mexico. I like to have fun, but I always minimize risks by understanding what I’m doing and making sure the equipment is in good condition for activities like aerial acrobatics, bungee jumping, skydiving and ziplining.
Striving for the goal of spaceflight has already made my life more interesting, more exciting than it would have been otherwise. I’ve gotten to know several astronauts, been NASA’s guest for space shuttle launches and had opportunities to promote STEM education. Because of that goal, my fascination with aviation, and my travels and hobbies, I have made many great friends.
This kid has no regrets.