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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.

After reading the Life article about Cobb, Funk wangled an invitation to the Lovelace Foundation. There she underwent the same hellish tests as had been administered to the Mercury 7, from having water injected into her eardrums to getting three feet of rubber tube shoved down her throat. "I didn't know you could stick so many things in so many orifices!" she says. Later she graduated to psychological tests and spent 10 hours and 35 minutes in a sensory-deprivation chamber without uttering a single word. "They said I broke the record, but I could have gone on forever," she says. "I'm very strong-willed. I can do anything you want me to do. You want me to lay on this floor for two hours? It's gonna hurt, but I'll do it. Things are very black and white to me, especially when it comes to my vocation."

In all, 13 women performed well enough to be selected for spaceflight simulations at the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Fla. These were remarkable results at a time when women were patronized as the weaker sex. (For example, many so-called medical experts believed that female pilots couldn't fly safely while they were menstruating.) Donald Kilgore, a physician who helped with the tests in Albuquerque, says the women performed "at least as well as the men, and some of them were even better. There's no question that women had a lot to contribute to the program."

There was just one problem: NASA didn't want them. The agency already had its designated heroes in the Mercury 7. Aside from Lovelace's preliminary research, there was nothing to suggest that women were qualified for the job. Also, NASA officials feared that public reaction to the death of a female astronaut would cripple the space program. But the major strike against women was the sexism that was deeply rooted in the culture of the space agency, and the military that supplied it. In 1962, while testifying during congressional hearings about alleged discrimination against women in the space program, astronaut John Glenn told a House subcommittee: "The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."

Six days before a second battery of tests was set to begin in Pensacola, Funk and her fellow would-be astronauts received a terse telegram informing them that the Lovelace Foundation was canceling the FLAT program. Immediately. Cobb and fellow Mercury 13 member Janey Hart, the wife of a U.S. senator, pleaded their case directly to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. While paying lip service to the women, Johnson scrawled "Lets Stop This Now" on a proposal to consider female astronauts, driving a stake through the heart of the program.

"I had no idea of all the politics behind the scenes," says Gene Nora Jessen, who now lives in Boise, Idaho. "I think that once NASA got wind of the program, they put a lid on it. I think they were not going to have a woman astronaut, period, and I don't think they gave us any serious consideration."

Jerri Truhill, now a grandmother in Dallas, generally agrees with Jessen, but she's a lot less sanguine about the program. "I was mad as hell when I got the telegram," she recalls. "My first reaction was, 'Why in the world did we go through all that testing?' My second reaction was, 'It figures. We're women.' I've never gotten over the way we were treated. It was enough to turn your stomach against men. We never got a dime out of it. And we never got a thank you--to this day!"

Adds Bernice Steadman of Traverse City, Mich., who went through the tests with Truhill: "I was disappointed to find that my own government thought so little of women."

Two years later, the Soviets sent female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova into orbit, prompting a scathing Clare Boothe Luce article in Life under the headline, "But Some People Simply Never Get the Message." (The cover blurb was even more caustic: "Soviet Space Girl Makes U.S. Men Sound Stupid.") Still, NASA didn't launch a woman into space until Sally Ride went up on the space shuttle in 1983. But to the Mercury 13, pilots all, she was just a passenger. They didn't feel vindicated until 1999, when Eileen Collins blasted off as the pilot in command of the Columbia.

At Collins' invitation, eight members of the Mercury 13 attended the launch at Cape Canaveral. It was a nice gesture, and it made for poignant photos suggesting a connection between NASA's first female commander and the women who had come before her. But in truth, the Mercury 13 hadn't blazed new trails; they'd hit a roadblock. At T-plus-38 years, nobody remembered who they were.

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