They had the right stuff. But they were the wrong sex.
That would be an appropriate epitaph for the women of the Mercury 13, or Woman in Space, program, a privately funded project in the early 1960s to test women pilots for astronaut fitness. The women never made it into space – the program was abruptly cancelled — but they are regarded as trailblazers in the annals of aviation.
One member of the group, the energetic Wally Funk, was put through 87 rigorous tests over 5-1/2 days to determine whether she in fact had the right stuff. Her scores surpassed many of the men in the famous Mercury 7 program, including one guy named John Glenn.
Her story is documented in the colorful Wally Funk’s Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer (Chicago Review Press) by Sue Nelson.
Nelson is the perfect chronicler: She is a multi-award-winning British science journalist specializing in space. She makes radio documentaries for the BBC, short films for scientific organizations and the European Space Agency, and co-presents the monthly Space Boffins podcast. She has reported on a number of space missions over the years. More recently, she achieved a personal ambition by floating like an astronaut onboard a Zero G flight.
Wally Funk, writes Nelson, was “the sort of woman more comfortable in trousers and boots than a skirt and heels. The sort of woman who can control a Ford minivan with her left knee. Wally is also the sort of woman who, if history had been kinder, might have been the first woman on the moon.”
In this biography, Nelson covers Funk’s meetings, and travels with her while recording a radio program about women in space. Nelson documents their trips to NASA’s mission control center, Spaceport America and more, all while giving insight into Wally’s quirky personality and determination to make it to space.
Throughout the book, the reader gains insight into women’s position in society during the 1960s, and what the Mercury 13 women were up against.
In the time period, the thought of women in space was frowned upon by many, leading to sudden cancellation of the program. One NASA official, having gotten wind of the secret program, supposedly suggested to the press that he’d rather send a bunch of monkeys into space than women.
The Mercury 13 program was started by a NASA researcher, William Randy Lovelace, who had also chosen the men for the first space program. The group of women underwent the same grueling physical and psychological testing as the male astronauts. The testing included sensory deprivation tanks, x-rays, and freezing water squirted into their ears.
After the Mercury 13 program was shut down, many of the women involved brought the case to the U.S. House of Representatives. Nelson details this, including how men astronauts testified that the women weren’t fit for NASA. Astronaut Glenn even said that it was against the social order for women to go to space. It would be another 20 years before the U.S. would send one.
In 2007, almost 50 years after their tests, Congress passed a resolution honoring the “trailblazing accomplishments” of the Mercury 13 women.
Funk’s life is marked by many firsts. She became the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the first civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, and the first Federal Aviation Agency inspector.
Throughout her journey, her passion to go into space never diminished. Now 80 years old, she has purchased a ticket for the Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and is anxiously awaiting her ride to space.
For a different kind of ride, come along with Sue Nelson and get to know the exploits and the animated personality of Wally Funk.
Wally Funk’s Race for Space is available for purchase.
About Sue Nelson
Sue Nelson is an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster. A former BBC TV science and environment correspondent, Nelson also was editor of The Biologist and currently makes short films on space missions for the European Space Agency. She received a New York Festivals International Radio Program award (2017) for her documentary about the history of women in space, called Women with the Right Stuff that was made with Wally Funk.