I remember well the day, October 13, 1970, the day of my Phase III
Since June 17, I had been a student pilot at Wright's Flying Service located
on the northwest corner of Hawthorne Airport (KHHR) in California. I was eighteen days away from taking my Private Pilot checkride, and feeling
somewhat intimidated by having to demonstrate my nascent flying skills to
the chief pilot, Ms. Wally Funk who had a reputation for demanding
perfection. So, I formulated a plan to remove some of the stress of having
Ms. Funk in the right seat.
The Hawthorne airport is located a few miles east of Los Angles
International Airport (KLAX), so shortly after departure to the west as the
LAX complex came into view, nonchalantly, I innocently remarked, "We can't
land there, right?" Quick to respond to an implicit challenge, Wally immediately said, "Sure we can." and contacted LAX ATC to request a touch-and-go. As planned, this consumed a significant portion of our
scheduled one hour flight, thus relieving me from whatever unknown texts the chief pilot might assign me during this checkride.
It was virtually a straight-in approach conducted at the Cessna C-150's (N8268F) snails-pace. It was a bit of a thrill to "mix-it-up" with airline traffic. I had often parked at the approach-end of the runways to
experience the enormous Boeing 707s so close overhead that I could almost
touch them, and then being bathed in warm kerosene fumes.
I made five additional landings during that flight, and received Wally's endorsement in my logbook: "W. Funk II 1906700CFI." Phew!
Later much later I learned of Wally's (largely unsuccessful) efforts to establish the acceptance of female astronauts by NASA. This was somewhat parallel to Jacqueline Cochran's attempt to coax the US Army Air Force to establish Women Air force Service Pilots (WASP) (1943-44), which employed
about 1000 civilian American women in a non-combat role to ferry planes from factories to port cities, as part of the military.
More than 60 years after longtime flight instructor and aspiring astronaut Wally Funk joined a group of women who submitted to a battery of medical
tests designed to assess their fitness for space, the 82-year-old will
realize a lifelong mission when she joins Jeff Bezos and two others aboard
Blue Origin’s New Shepard when it rockets from the Earth on July 20, 2021
The Woman in Space Program became known unofficially as the “Mercury 13.” It was a short-lived, privately funded project in the early 1960s conceived to assess the medical fitness of women for spaceflight. At that time,
scientists speculated women might make good occupants for cramped space vehicles because “on the average, women are smaller and lighter than men,”
NASA noted in a historical document.
By the end of the summer of 1961, 19 women pilots had taken astronaut
fitness examinations at a clinic run by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Funk, then a 21-year-old flight instructor, was the youngest of a group that also included groundbreaking female aviators
Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, a ferry pilot, and Jacqueline Cochran, an air racer.
Funk and her contemporaries proved they were fit for the unknown rigors of space travel by taking—and passing—numerous exams that tested their psychological and physiological fitness.
A vertigo experiment shot ice water into their ears to measure recovery; circulation was assessed with a tilt table device; stomach acid was measured
by having them swallow a rubber tube; and respiration was determined by pedaling a stationary bicycle that “pushed the women to exhaustion,” the
NASA report noted. Funk, Cobb, and fellow contender Rhea Hurrle had further proved they were fit during psychological evaluations and an isolation tank test.
During the program “they asked me, ‘Do you want to be an astronaut?’ and I said, ’Yes,’” Funk recalled during an Instagram video. “They told me that I
had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys.”
However, the program was abruptly terminated, leaving the women in limbo. “I got ahold of NASA four times; I said, ‘I want to become an astronaut’ but nobody would take me.”
Funk and other of her contemporary female aviation pioneers lobbied the U.S. government for many years to send women to space. More than two decades
later, in 1983, Sally Ride became the first U.S. female astronaut aboard the space shuttle mission STS-7.
Funk said in the video that she’s been flying “forever” and has accumulated 19,600 flying hours. During a lengthy flight instruction career, she taught “over 3,000 people to fly—private, commercial, instrument, flight engineer, airline transport, gliding—everything the FAA has, I’ve got the license” for it.
She will surpass a mark set by John Glenn as the oldest person to experience space travel. The first American to orbit Earth was 77 when he participated
in the STS-95 mission in 1998.
Funk said that she hasn’t “ever” let things get in her way, even when people told her that she was a girl and “can’t do that. I said, ‘Guess what?
Doesn’t matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it.’”