The Unlaunchable Wally Funk

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.”

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?”

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.

The Mercury 13, as such, never existed. The women didn’t gather in one spot at one time until decades after they were tested, and the catchy name was coined in the 1980s by a clever movie producer. Within NASA, renewed interest in the subject is a source of gnashed teeth and indigestion. “There was no Mercury 13 program,” says former NASA historian Roger Launius. According to Launius, who is now the chairman of space history at the National Air and Space Museum: “It was a set of privately funded scientific experiments using women as guinea pigs.”

Even so, the effort turned out to be a defining moment in the lives of several of the participants. Some lost jobs when they left work to take the Lovelace tests; others were permanently embittered. Jerrie Cobb emerged as a tragic hero. For decades, she begged and badgered NASA for a chance to be an astronaut. Alternately ignored and marginalized, she retreated into herself and a solitary existence flying in the South American jungles of the Amazon River.

And Wally Funk? “I threw it a fish,” she says, quoting a Taos Indian expression meaning that she moved on and didn’t look back. She became a flight instructor at Hawthorne Municipal Airport and competed in women’s air races from coast to coast. A three-year around-the-world interlude in a VW camper took her to 59 countries before she ran out of money. Back in L.A., she was hired as a field examiner by the FAA and then an accident investigator by the NTSB--both jobs a first for women, she says. After investigating 450 accidents ranging from a probable mob hit to a fatal crash at a mortuary, she retired in 1985 and went back to teaching.

Funk lectured widely on space and safety. She skydived, bungee-jumped, raced cars, ballooned and, in Wild West costume, competed as “The Taos Kid” in shooting competitions. She entered hoity-toity car shows in a custom-body Rolls-Royce once owned by the Queen Mother. She designed and built her own house in Taos. She appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” with Billie Jean King (“I did all the talking”) and was featured flying aerobatics in a Stearman biplane in a Merrill Lynch TV spot (“Sure, I take risks for fun. But when it comes to my money, I’m really careful.”). More recently, and for no apparent reason, she popped up on a CD titled “The Flight of Wally Funk,” by the Australian rock band Spiderbait.

But through it all, she never forgot the ride not taken. After the Pensacola tests were aborted, she was determined to complete the so-called Phase 3 training anyway. Working her own contacts, she rode a centrifuge at USC, underwent high-altitude chamber and ejection-seat tests at the El Toro Marine Corps Base and “flew” the Apollo static simulator at Edwards Air Force Base. In 2000, she attended the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Center in Russia, where she traipsed around in a spacesuit and experienced several minutes of weightlessness.

Funk refers to her stint in Russia as astronaut training, which is true as far as it goes. But the curriculum is part of a pay-to-play program open to all comers willing to pony up the substantial fees required to attend. (Funk’s were paid by a television producer.) Which is why the promotional photos of Funk in her Russian spacesuit stick in the craw of some of the Mercury 13, even those who still consider her a friend.

“She’s been pretending to be an astronaut ever since [1961],” Truhill says. “I don’t think she’s got a chance in hell of flying into space. But she’s great at promoting herself. She lives off the publicity. She feeds off it.”

Truhill says Funk habitually rewrites history to cast herself in a better light, whether belittling the qualifications of her colleagues or claiming to have outperformed John Glenn in an endurance test. “She takes the truth and stretches it so far that you can’t recognize it,” Truhill complains. Says another longtime acquaintance: “The sad thing is that, with her accomplishments, she doesn’t need to exaggerate.”

But as far as Funk is concerned, she’s the victim here. “I think they were jealous of me. They were all stuck with families, divorces, problem children, dying dogs, cars that didn’t work. What can I say? I’ve always felt like it’s been wonderful to be alive. Everything that I do is fun. I’ve never done anything that’s made me miserable. I’m an up person. I like to be with other up people. If I’m with down people, well, have a nice day! See you another time!”

Wally’s world is a remarkably vibrant but oddly two-dimensional construct, where everything is either up or down, good or bad, black or white. “I don’t know why people have to go find themselves or go through mood swings or see shrinks,” she says, genuinely puzzled. Of course, this is a woman who insists that she’s never been scared, despite logging nearly 17,000 hours as a pilot in command. As for space flight in a civilian rocket that has never carried human cargo and would be launched by a small private company, no problem. “I’m ready to go,” she says. When it’s pointed out that no fewer than 14 astronauts have been killed during NASA’s 107 lavishly funded and extravagantly staffed space shuttle missions, Funk is unperturbed. “I’ll be just as safe on that rocket as I would be crossing the street,” she says.

Is this what she honestly believes, or is it what she believes an astronaut ought to say? Or after 40-plus years of wishful thinking, are they one and the same? “Getting into space is her raison d’etre,” says Donald Kilgore, the physician who once helped test Funk. “That’s why she’s been beating the drums for all these years. I don’t think she’s going to get a ride now because she’s just too old. But bless her heart, she’s still trying.”

The commercialization of space is one of those seemingly can’t-miss ideas whose time perversely refuses to come. First, low-cost launch services seemed to promise a moneymaking paradigm, but nobody could figure out how to make the technology cheap enough. For a while, communications satellites were all the rage. Now, “space tourism” is the favored buzz phrase of visionaries who see space as the most profitable frontier. In recent years, Funk has put down deposits with not one but two start-ups to reserve tickets to ride into space. Alas, neither firm was able to deliver. But in 2001, Los Angeles millionaire Dennis Tito--with whom Funk had “matriculated” at cosmonaut school--became the world’s first space tourist, paying $20 million to vacation at the Mir space station. “If I had $20 million,” Funk says wistfully, “I’d be there right now.”

These days, spaceniks looking for the development of an affordable approach to extraterrestrial tourism are pinning most of their hopes on the $10-million jackpot being offered by the nonprofit X Prize Foundation (started by aerospace visionary Peter Diamandis of Santa Monica) to the first privately funded team to launch a human being to an altitude of 62.5 miles and then repeat the trip in the same spaceship within two weeks. An X Prize flight won’t explore new ground; it will basically reprise Alan Shepard’s suborbital voyage of 1961. But if nothing else, it will create a whole new category of adventure travel.

Roughly two dozen teams have registered to compete for the X Prize. The entrants range from NASA retirees to experienced amateur rocketeers to the lunatic fringe. The front-runner is Burt Rutan, the celebrated Mojave renegade behind the Voyager airplane, which flew nonstop around the world in 1986. Not only does Rutan have the moxie to win this new space race, but he’s also got the money, which is equally important.

“There is no great technical challenge here,” says Gary Hudson, a Menlo Park space entrepreneur who has been working on launch vehicles for three decades. “It’s an organizational and economic challenge.”

Working in the shadow of Rutan, literally, is Mojave upstart Interorbital Systems, which is one of the few X Prize competitors to have built and tested actual hardware. Half of the company’s 25 employees are volunteers. Most of the rest work part time for stock options. The only two full-time employees are its chief rocket scientist, Rod Milliron, a former aerospace engineer, and his wife Randa, a former journalist. To date, Randa says, they have spent $500,000, but they need $3 million more to make a serious run at the X Prize. Which is a major reason why Funk was hired as the company’s test pilot--her deferred payment being a space shot.

Randa Milliron figured that Funk’s celebrity would generate media coverage for Interorbital, which it has. She also hoped the publicity would attract sponsors. So far, they haven’t materialized. “Considering Wally’s accomplishments, I can’t believe that somebody hasn’t jumped on board,” she says. “But it seems that no one’s interested in an older woman, no matter who she is.” So Milliron is now promoting the first teenager in space--Sunland Boy Scout Justin Houchin. The idea is that Funk will teach him to fly, and then he’ll go up as a passenger once Interorbital starts launching commercial space flights.

The crowning irony, of course, is that Funk knows virtually nothing about rocketry. “I don’t have a clue,” she says cheerfully. “Rod is the rocketeer. He’ll tell me what to do.” To be honest, Funk doesn’t seem to care passionately about space per se. After all, there’s nothing left for her to explore, no great discoveries to be made. She can no longer be the first woman in space, or the first American woman, or the first civilian. But at this point, maybe it’s more about the journey than the destination. “I don’t intend to blow myself up,” she says. “But anything can happen. And if I don’t make it, that’s perfectly fine. I have all my papers in order.”

Word comes down from the control tower at Santa Monica Airport: The airspace is clear, so the race can begin. Funk and Gibson climb into their airplane and taxi toward the runway while their friend Cheryl Baker snaps a few final photos. Baker devotes much of her energy to promoting female pilots, and she spent the last few years helping care for the elderly Bobbi Trout, an aviation pioneer, now dead, who competed in the inaugural derby here 75 years ago.

“Even if Wally doesn’t make it into space, she’ll be remembered for her love of aviation and her tenacity in pursuing her dream,” Baker says. “A lot of people go through their lives without discovering their passion.”

Funk’s Cessna looks puny and insignificant as it waits on the wide expanse of blacktop, and her dream of spaceflight seems far, far away. Then again, could Orville Wright have imagined, as he skimmed along the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk in 1903, that Charles Lindbergh would cross the Atlantic in 1927? That Chuck Yeager would break the sound barrier in 1947? That Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon in 1969? Can Wally Funk fly into space in 2004? She’s got the ability. God knows she’s got the drive. She’s in the right place. Who’s to say it’s not the right time?

The exhaust note of her Cessna deepens, and the plane rolls forward, gathering speed until it rises off the runway. “You go, girls!” Baker shouts as the plane climbs. She’s still smiling as it banks right and disappears from sight.