Wally Funk recounts first female astronaut program

Staff report
Posted 8/3/18

In 1961, Taos native, Wally Funk was 20, already a distinguished pilot and the youngest of 13 women selected for a secret program to evaluate women for space travel.

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Wally Funk recounts first female astronaut program

Posted

In 1961, Taos native, Wally Funk was 20, already a distinguished pilot and the youngest of 13 women selected for a secret program to evaluate women for space travel.

But she never had the opportunity to go. 

Funk’s dreams, along with her comrades, were all dashed when NASA opted to exclusively send men to the moon.

“It was a good ol’ boy network, and there was no such thing as a good ol’ girl network,” Funk says in a new Netflix documentary named after the clandestine program, “Mercury 13.”

The Taos Ski Valley closed out their free Summer Speaker Series  Friday,  (July 27) with a presentation by Funk—a woman who most certainly could have landed on the moon.

The Mercury 13 program tested the country’s most talented female pilots with the same physiological screening tests as the astronauts selected by NASA for Project Mercury. The aim was to determine whether women were capable of the same rigorous challenges as men.

They were, but it wasn’t enough to convince men that women should be allowed to go into space. NASA said no.

“I would have loved to walk on the moon,” said Funk in the Mercury 13 documentary. “I could have made dust because I know the guys did. I could have done anything they did.” 

Ironically, the United States had been determined to catch up to the Russian space program in those early years. But those in charge of the space program remained years behind the Russians when it came to equality for women. Russia sent the first woman into space, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963. 

It would be another 20 years before the U.S. sent the first woman into space: Sally Ride.

Funk, along with some of the other First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) as they were called, went on to lobby the White House and Congress for the inclusion of women in the astronaut program and likewise appeared before a congressional committee.

Funk’s talk at TSV, “An Evening with Air and Space Pioneer Wally Funk,” drew a crowd to the Taos Tent on Thunderbird Road in Taos Ski Valley. 

According to Anee Ward who curates the Taos Ski Valley’s Speaker Series Program, the goal of the series, and of Funk’s presentation, was to deepen and enhance understanding within the Taos community.

“Wally is both a local legend and a national treasure,” said Ward.

 Funk started flying early as she recounted to NASA in an oral history project. “I got my first try at flying, just pure flying, by flying my Superman cape off my daddy’s barn when I was about 5 years old,” Funk told historian Carol Butler. “I was allowed to make airplanes out of blocks of balsa wood and hang them from my ceiling.”

Funk’s parents encouraged her to take flying lessons in college. 

She heard about a program to train women for space and was accepted along with 24 other women. Only 13 completed the rigorous physical and psychological tests required, Funk told Butler. But still, they were turned away from the chance they all wanted—to fly into space. “This is what is kind of interesting: the fact that we could have done it if they would just let us. A dog did it. A monkey did it. Man did it,” Funk told Butler. “Woman can do it.” 

And they did. Eileen Collins became the first woman in 1995 to pilot a space shuttle. Dozens of women astronauts have flown into space. 

They have Funk and 12 other women to thank for clearing the path. 

Read a 1999 oral history with Funk recorded by NASA at jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/NASA_HQ/Aviatrix/FunkW/WF_7-18-99.pdf

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