When Wally Funk was barely a year old, she discovered aeroplanes. Her parents took her to an airport near where they lived in New Mexico and she got up close to a Douglas DC-3, an early airliner. “I go right to the wheel and I try to turn the nut,” she says. “Mother said: ‘She’s going to fly.’” Just over 20 years later, in 1961, Funk’s mother dropped her off at a clinic in Albuquerque, where she became the youngest participant in a programme to test whether the US’s best female pilots could become astronauts. She didn’t make it into space, but, nearly six decades on, she is still trying.
We meet at the home of Funk’s friend, the journalist Sue Nelson, who has written a wonderful book about her. Funk is 80, straight-backed and sparkling. She is dressed in a black shirt embroidered with “Wally” on one side and the logo from the organisation Women in Aviation International on the other, neatly tucked into black trousers on which she has sewn a patch for SpaceShipTwo – Virgin Galactic’s suborbital plane. Funk spent $200,000 on a ticket in 2010 and is still waiting for the opportunity to use it. She talks energetically and loudly, and you have to speak up if you want her to hear you, thanks to a lifetime spent near plane engines. She is unlike anyone I have ever met.
“OK, lay it on me,” she says, fixing me with a direct look.
Mary Wallace Funk was born in 1939. She grew up in Taos, a town in New Mexico, where her parents ran a chain of shops and let her run wild. She grew up riding her bike or her horse, skiing, hunting and fishing. When she was 14, the National Rifle Association sent her incredible shooting results to the president, Dwight Eisenhower, and he wrote back to her. “I did everything that people didn’t expect a girl to do,” she says. “There was nothing I couldn’t do.” She was expected to be home, washed and wearing a dress every evening for dinner, but other than that they encouraged her outdoors nature. When she wanted to build a treehouse, her father got her the tools. “Today’s kids wouldn’t know what to think of it,” she says.
Funk didn’t give the idea of space much thought, but she wanted to fly. By the time she was seven, she was making planes from balsa wood. At nine, she had her first flying lesson. She remembers “the air and how pretty it was, and how the ground looked. It was probably all of 15 minutes.”
She didn’t fly again until her teens, when she enrolled at Stephens College in Missouri and got her flying licence. She went on to study education at Oklahoma State University, mainly because it had an aviation team known as the Flying Aggies. “As a Flying Aggie, I could do all the manoeuvres as well as the boys, if not better,” she says. After that, she became a flight instructor – the only female one – at a US military base.
Then Funk read an article about the Woman in Space Program, run by William Randolph Lovelace. A doctor who had worked on Project Mercury, Nasa’s drive to put a man into orbit around the Earth, Lovelace launched this privately funded programme to discover if women were as able as men. Funk contacted him, detailing her experience and achievements. Despite being underage – the women were supposed to be between 25 and 40; she was 22 – she was invited to take part.
“The first day, they said: ‘Come in, don’t drink, don’t eat,’” she says. “The first thing they do is temperature, take all the blood tests they can, and then I was put in a chair, strapped in, and they inject [ice-cold] water into my ear.” The test, which was intended to induce vertigo so that the scientists could record how the participants dealt with it, was painful, but Funk says she was taught never to give in to discomfort. The other woman being tested that day dropped out within hours, so Funk spent the rest of the week on her own. “I took it. I can take anything. You can whip me and it won’t bother me.”
She was taken to another room to relax, then brought back in so they could do the other ear. “I think I said: ‘Wow.’ They unstrapped me, I wasn’t dizzy, I was normal.” For the rest of the week, “not only did they poke needles in me all the time, but tubes were poked down me and stuck up me. For what reason, I have no idea.”
One of the tests involved floating in the dark in a sensory-deprivation tank. “I turned my brain off and I went up into the heavens,” she says. “I lay there and lay there. Pretty soon – many hours later, although I had no knowledge of time – a voice came over and said: ‘Wally, do you need to go to the bathroom?’ and I said: ‘I’ve already done that.’” She laughs. “They said: ‘OK, how do you feel?’ I said: ‘I feel great!’ Then silence. And that’s the way I sleep today.” She spread-eagles her arms and legs and says: “You will sleep better.” When she came out, she was told she had been in there for 10 hours and 35 minutes and broken the record. “I said: ‘Good. Whatever you want to do, keep on doing it.’”
There were numerous x-rays and a brain scan. Some of the tests were brutal – one included swallowing a 3ft-long rubber tube to examine her stomach. Did she ever feel like giving up? “Oh, heavens, no. Higher, faster, longer – that is my motto. I can go out there and do anything.” Did she think she would become an astronaut? “Absolutely.”
Funk and 12 other women – who became known as the Mercury 13 – passed and were put forward for the next phase of testing. But then the programme, which was not sanctioned by Nasa, was cancelled after doubts were raised about whether women should even be taking part in such a thing. Two of the 13 pleaded their case at a congressional subcommittee meeting; one of those testifying against them was the astronaut John Glenn, who said including women in the space programme “may be undesirable”.
How did she feel when it ended? “Well, it’s not going to stop me. It doesn’t matter.” Wasn’t she disappointed? “I don’t have that kind of a life. I’m a positive person. Things were cancelled? So what? Wally’s going on. Why are people so negative? I’m not a quitter.”
For the next few years, she sought out more tests to prove her capability. “Every test I took I exceeded,” she says. “I took probably about six or seven different tests throughout the US. Then I went to Russia and took the cosmonaut tests. I beat all the guys.” She wrote repeatedly to Nasa to try to get on one of its training programmes, but she was told she couldn’t because she didn’t have an engineering degree. “I was living in Ohio somewhere and I went to the college and I went to the head guy and said: ‘I want to come in and get my engineering degree,’ and he hit me like that, hard.” She gets up and swats at my shoulder. “He said: ‘You’re a girl – go to home ec.’”
She continued working as a flight instructor and later became the first female investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), looking into plane crashes. Did she ever feel intimidated in these all-male environments? “Why would I? I’ve never been intimidated by anybody. When I was with the FAA and a guy got a little too close to my desk and he tried to touch me, I got up and walked out. I came back and told my secretary about it; he was fired the next day.”
Was there ever a point when she thought trying to become an astronaut wasn’t working? “No, I never thought that,” she says. “You’re asking me questions that are negative. I never had anything negative.” She experienced weightlessness on a parabolic flight when she was 61. But is she worried she won’t live to use her Virgin Galactic ticket, given that Richard Branson’s project has suffered years of setbacks? “I don’t worry about anything, honey. You have never spoken to anybody like me, have you?” She smiles kindly. “I’m positive – there’s no worry. I will get up there somehow.”
Hers is an extraordinary life. “Exquisite,” she calls it. We barely have time to touch on the two and a half years she spent travelling around Europe and Africa in a camper van with only a poodle and a chipmunk for company. The photographs she shows me become more and more outlandish – here she is with her first plane, a Stearman biplane; there is the house she built herself; here she is, riding an alligator.
Funk had relationships, but boyfriends “didn’t show me much”. She never wanted children. “I’m not a person who likes kids,” she says, then clarifies: “I’m talking about babies. I have never really held a baby in my life. Do you know how many people I know now, in different organisations, who are so busy with husbands and kids and school and homework? I’m just so glad I don’t have to mess with any of that.” She wears a band engraved with wings on her ring finger.
Funk still flies every Saturday, instructing people. Can she see a time when she will have to stop? “No!” she shouts. “I’ll be flying ’til I die.” As for making it into space, it feels almost a given that Funk, unstoppable as a rocket, will get there.
Quelle: The Guardian