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The Unlaunchable Wally Funk

Most of the 13 Female Pilots Who Tested for Space Flight in 1961 Gave Up and Moved On After the U.S. Government Squashed Their Dream. For One Inspiring Soul, Though, the Countdown Continues.

January 18, 2004|Preston Lerner | Preston Lerner last wrote for the magazine about the future of the lawn in Southern California.

Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk, astronaut in perpetual waiting, strikes a self-consciously theatrical pose for photographers in front of her airplane at Santa Monica Airport, back arched, arms outstretched, teeth gleaming in her signature smile. Click. "You want us from another angle?" she asks like a supermodel directing her own photo shoot. Click. "How about at the back of the plane?" Click. "Oh, that's good, Cheryl. Can you get the 3 [on the tail] in the picture?" Click. "Photo op! We've got to get Jeannie in here." Click. "Cheryl, you want a different pose?" Click. "Sam, are you getting what you need?" Cameras and camcorders come and go, but the larger-than-life smile is available on demand.

In 1961, then an ambitious, irrepressible 22-year-old flight instructor, Funk was the youngest of 13 women who were secretly evaluated as candidates for NASA's space program. In several tests, she and her cohorts outperformed the men--the Mercury 7--who would rocket so famously into history. But America wasn't ready for female astronauts. "The time wasn't right," Funk says. "And the old-boy network didn't want us." The program was killed before it got off the ground, and the female pilots, who much later were dubbed the Mercury 13, faded into obscurity.

Yet more than 40 years after her brief stint as an understudy, Funk still hungers for a star turn on an astral stage, and there's nothing she won't risk to achieve her lifelong dream of rocketing into space. Her life savings? Check. Her reputation? No problem. Her life? In a heartbeat. She has signed on as a test pilot for Interorbital Systems, a tiny Mojave-based company with grand plans to make her the first human to fly into space in a privately funded spacecraft. This unprecedented launch could occur within a year if adequate funding is secured--a really big if.

For now, Funk has the publicity machine cranked up to redline. This summer morning she's at Santa Monica Airport to fly the flag while competing in the Palms to Pines Air Race from Southern California to Oregon. Seventy-five years ago, this was the starting point of the country's first transcontinental air race for women. Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes were among the celebrated aviatrixes (as they were known in those days) who flew in the inaugural Air Derby. Today, for better or worse, female pilots no longer fascinate the public. So instead of the star-studded crowd on hand in 1929, the atmosphere at the airport is as sedate as lunchtime at a laundromat--except for the whirlwind being kicked up by the human tornado with a shock of short white hair.

Although Funk reluctantly admits to being 64, she doesn't look or act her age. Dressed in red cargo pants and work boots, she's trim, athletic, gregarious and immensely likable--think instant confidante, a ball of fire who greets acquaintances with hearty hugs and refers to friends old and new as "babe." But the first thing most people notice is her tireless energy and boundless enthusiasm for the task--usually tasks--at hand. Her teammate in the race, Lou Ann Gibson, smiles indulgently as Funk wipes down their Cessna 172 while orchestrating photos, conducting interviews and mingling with a group of well-wishers large enough to constitute an entourage.

Gibson will pilot while Funk navigates as they compete against 19 other two-woman teams over the next two days. Gibson, an American Airlines pilot, is one of 800 or so students who have soloed under Funk's tutelage. In 1958, when Funk earned her wings, pilot instructor was just about as high as a woman could go in aviation. But she soared higher still with pioneering jobs as an inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and an accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board in Los Angeles. She also completed her astronaut training on her own after the Mercury 13 program fizzled, even though NASA never showed the slightest inclination to send her into space.

"I love challenges, and I like 'em hard," she says. "If I were growing up today, I'd want to be a Navy SEAL. I was taught that you could do anything if you wanted it badly enough."

Funk has been at this long enough to know that publicity rather than rocket science is what it will take to launch her into orbit. Fortuitously, after decades as footnote figures, she and her Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs), as they're sometimes called, were recently catapulted into the spotlight by the publication of two books about them: "Promised the Moon," by Stephanie Nolen, and "The Mercury 13," by Martha Ackmann. But Funk has gone light-years further than her colleagues in the self-promotion sweepstakes, and some of them resent it. "Headline Wally," one calls her. "She'd throw herself in front of an 18-wheeler if she thought it would get her in the paper."

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