“I decided to become an astronaut after seeing an article in Life magazine. It was about Jerrie Cobb, a pilot, like me. She had passed a private programme called Woman in Space, led by Dr Randolph Lovelace. He had tested the Mercury 7 astronauts for NASA. The Woman in Space tests were exactly the same, and he wanted more women to take part. I volunteered and took the tests in February 1961. I was 22 years old. Thirteen of us passed.
The Mercury 13 women didn’t know each other. We took the tests in pairs, not in a group like the Mercury 7 guys. My partner dropped out really quickly, so I did the tests alone. We were all pilots, but many of them were married with kids. I was single and married to my airplane.
Vice president Lyndon B Johnson and Jackie Cochran put a stop to the Woman in Space programme. Johnson sent a letter to NASA and wrote: ‘Let’s stop this now.’ It was a good old boys’ network in the 1960s. Cochran was a famous pilot; she helped fund the programme but spoke against us at a government hearing. She said it wasn’t the right time to send women to space. It stopped the other girls, but not me. I applied to NASA several times, but they turned me down because I didn’t have an engineering degree.
I’ve been an aviator all my life. I learned to fly when I was 18 and was paid to fly at 20. I’ve been a chief pilot about five or six times and have also been a safety inspector and air crash investigator.
The closest I’ve been into space was when I flew on Concorde. We reached 80,000 feet. Next year, however, I hope to go into space on a Virgin Galactic spaceplane as I’ve bought a ticket. I’ll finally be an astronaut.”
Interview: Sue Nelson.
Wally’s story is told in Netflix documentary, Mercury 13. Wally Funk’s Race for Space, by Sue Nelson, is published by The Westbourne Press, RRP: £16.99
Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)