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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.

The pursuit of her improbable dream has brought Funk heartbreak and humiliation that would have crushed the spirit of a less tenacious soul. Her determination is admirable, even awe-inspiring, but difficult to explain, much less understand. Is she a modern knight questing after the Holy Grail? A latter-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills? Or just an Eveready Bunny who keeps going and going and going long after her goal has ceased to have any real meaning?

"I'm still pedaling!" she says, cackling defiantly. "I never lost the faith. I don't have any doubt. Not a lick. I'm just as sure that I'll go into space as I am that my car will start in the morning. I've lived in a man's world all these wonderful years. I've been the only girl in the cockpit, in the conference room, wherever. I have learned how to kick in a lot of doors, and I have dealt with a lot of disappointments. But I will go into space one day, when God thinks it's right or I make it right. Whether we make it with Interorbital or not, I'm going to make it. I don't know how, but I know it's going to happen."

Today, in an age when irony resonates more acutely than heroism, it's hard to imagine how thoroughly the first American astronaut candidates were lionized. An exclusive contract with Life magazine didn't hurt, and neither did a fan club that included the president of the United States. But the members of the Mercury 7 were the real deal--fearless test pilots, many of them decorated war veterans, all members in good standing of the brotherhood of The Right Stuff. They'd been culled from the hottest pilots in the military, and they became heroes the instant they were introduced to an adoring public in 1959. And why not? These were the brave, laconic, crew-cut All-American boys who were going to go where no man had gone before--if NASA could just figure out how to get them there.

At the dawn of the Space Age, American rockets had a bewildering and disconcerting propensity to blow up when the launch control officer lit the fuse. And this, indirectly, is what got some freethinkers associated with the space program to consider smaller rocket engines, lighter payloads and the possibility of using female astronauts. There also was the possibility, as yet unexplored, that women were better suited than men to the demands of space travel. Granted, there weren't any women with the piloting skills of the Mercury 7. In those not-so-good old days, women weren't allowed in the military--or to fly commercial airliners, for that matter. But NASA wasn't expecting the astronauts to do any real piloting, hence the derisive sobriquet, "Spam in a can." In fact, the first terrestrial being in space wasn't Yuri Gagarin; it was Laika, the Commie cosmodog.

The FLAT project grew out of a chance meeting between physician Randy Lovelace and Jerrie Cobb. At the time, Lovelace oversaw the medical testing of the astronauts, while Cobb was among the world's most accomplished female pilots. With the backing of the Air Force, and without NASA's knowledge, Lovelace decided to run Cobb through the same physical tests that he'd administered to the Mercury 7. In February 1960, Cobb spent a week at the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research in Albuquerque. The tests were an unqualified success. Afterward, she prepared a list of other candidates for Lovelace to evaluate.

Cobb was profiled in Life six months later. Wally Funk, working as a civilian flight instructor on the sunbaked Army base at Ft. Sill, Okla., read the article, and her life changed forever. "I knew Jerrie," she recalls. "She was in Oklahoma City, and I was in Stillwater. I figured, if she could do it, I could do it. Space was new and different. I knew I could be good at it."

Funk was 21, effervescent with an incandescent smile. She'd been raised in Taos before it was discovered by the leisure class, and as a kid she'd learned how to hunt, fish, ride and camp. An accomplished skier, she'd intended to try out for the Olympic team before she was sidelined by a freak injury when a ski lift malfunctioned. Immobilized in a body cast, the tomboy turned to aviation.

Funk can't remember a time when she wasn't fascinated by flying. Her scrapbook contains a black-and-white photo of her at age 5, dressed in the Superman cape she wore when she jumped off the roof of the family barn. Balsa-wood airplanes hung from the ceiling of her bedroom. She soloed at 18 and graduated from Oklahoma State University as one of the aviation team's Flying Aggies, with a bushel of awards and pilot ratings. Naive in many respects, she was still bold enough to have gotten her job at Ft. Sill by waltzing into the local airfield office and asking, "Does anybody need a flight instructor?"

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