Wally Funk made history as the oldest person to ever travel to space!
In the 1960s, pioneering aviator Wally Funk, who could fly just about anything with wings, was part of the "Mercury 13" program exploring whether women could be astronauts — but despite excelling at all the tests male astronauts took, NASA refused to accept women into the space program. Today, the 82-year-old finally achieved her lifelong dream of traveling to space when she left orbit on commercial space company Blue Origin's inaugural crewed flight! Funk, who became the oldest person ever to leave Earth's atmosphere on today's 10 minute, 19 second journey, joined Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemon, a physics student who became the youngest person ever to go to space on the same trip. "No one has waited longer," Bezos wrote in an Instagram post when he announced he had invited Funk on the flight. "It's time. Welcome to the crew, Wally."
Born in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1939, Funk was captivated by planes from an early age. Her parents remembered her cheerfully investigating a Douglas DC-3 airliner at a year old; "she's going to fly," her mother remarked. Funk wanted to take courses like mechanical drawing and auto mechanics in high school, but she was refused because she was a girl — so she dropped out at the age of 16 and went to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, where she graduated in 1958 with an Associate of Arts degree and a pilot's license. She completed a Bachelor of Science degree at Oklahoma State University, earning multiple aviation ratings as part of the college's "Flying Aggies" program, including Commercial, Single-engine Land, Multi-engine Land, Single-engine Sea, Instrument, Flight Instructor's, and all Ground Instructor's ratings.
By the age of 20, she was a professional aviator, and shortly afterward she became a flight instructor at at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, making her the first female flight instructor on a U.S. military base. Then, in 1961, she learned that physician William Randolph Lovelace, with the support of NASA, was assessing whether women would make good astronaut candidates. Funk contacted Lovelace, and although she was younger than the recruiting age range of 25 to 40 years, he invited her to participate. Like the twelve other female pilots who graduated from the Mercury 13 program, as it had been dubbed by the media in a reference to Mercury 7, Funk passed the same rigorous psychological and physical tests as the male astronauts had been subjected to, in many cases performing better than the men. Funk's score was the third best in the program overall, which also included the record-breaking aviator Jerrie Cobb.
A few days before the women were to report for their final tests, however, they received telegrams notifying them that NASA had withdrawn their support and, as a result, the program was being canceled. Jerrie Cobb flew to Washington, D.C. in an effort to have the testing program reinstated; as a result, Representative Victor Anfuso convened a public hearing on July 17 and 18, 1962 before a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics to investigate the possibility of gender discrimination (although such discrimination was not made illegal until two years later with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).
NASA representatives, including several male astronauts, testified that under NASA's selection criteria, women were ineligible to become astronaut candidates since NASA required all astronauts to have engineering degrees and be graduates of military jet test piloting programs. The latter requirement was impossible for American women to fulfill at the time since, in 1962, they were barred from Air Force training schools. The fact that NASA had made an exception for astronaut John Glenn, who lacked an engineering degree, and that many of the female candidates had more flying time, though not in high-performance jets, than their male counterparts was ignored and the committee affirmed the prohibition on women in the space program. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova would go on to become the first woman in space only a few months later; Sally Ride didn't become the first American woman in space until 1983.
Funk continued to fly, although she was turned down for jobs with three commercial airlines because of her sex. In 1971, she became the first woman to complete the FAA's General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course, earning the rating of flight inspector, and she became the NTSB's first female Air Safety Investigator. Once NASA decided to start admitting female astronaut candidates in 1978, Funk applied, but was turned down again because she didn't have an engineering degree or experience as a test pilot: "I got ahold of NASA four times, and said 'I want to become an astronaut,' but nobody would take me," she says. "I didn't think I would ever get to go up."
Today, Funk has over 19,600 flying hours and has taught more than 3,000 people to fly while serving as chief pilot for five aviation schools across the country: "Everything the FAA has, I've got the license for. And I can outrun you," she jokes. She never gave up on her dream, at one point even spending her life savings to put down a deposit for a future space flight with Virgin Galactic, which has yet to be scheduled. "I have waited so long for this," she declared after the historic flight this morning. "I can't wait to go back." She hopes that everyone who watched her achieve her dream remembers not to listen to the naysayers: "Nothing has ever gotten in my way. They say, 'Wally, you're a girl, you can't do that.' I said, 'Guess what, doesn't matter what you are, you can still do it if you want to do it,' and I like to do things that nobody's ever done before."
Books for Kids and Adults About Pioneering Women of Space
This pigtailed Baby Astronaut is ready for liftoff! She and her crew put on space suits and helmets before they blast off. Once she's in orbit, she'll explain why astronauts float (and even how they sleep.) Then, she'll conduct experiments: Can ants live in space? Yes! Can plants grow in space? Yes! This adorable board book from the Baby Scientist series, which also includes the book Baby Botanist, is perfect for curious babies and toddlers.
When Kathy Sullivan was growing up, she hated the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" — because whenever she named an exciting job, people told her it wasn't for girls. But she was determined to change that, so when she was a teenager, she learned to fly a plane, and in 1978 she became one of the first women to be selected by NASA. And when she finally got to space in 1984, she made her mark as the first American woman to perform a spacewalk. This inspiring story ends with a note from Sullivan and capsule biographies of other American women space pioneers. It's perfect for budding astronauts, or for anyone who refuses to believe something "isn't for girls."
This gorgeously illustrated collected biography honors inspirational women who helped fuel some of the greatest achievements in space exploration from the nineteenth century to today! Galaxy Girls pays tribute to fifty pioneering women past and present, from mathematicians to engineers to test pilots to astronauts. Each capsule biography is paired with striking full-page original artwork from the students of the London College of Communication. Perfect for inspiring the space leaders of tomorrow, this stunning book gives this band of heroic sisters and their remarkable and often little known scientific achievements long overdue recognition.
Imagine blasting off into outer space with this book that profiles famous female astronauts — and encourages you to try hands-on STEM activities related to space exploration! The stories of Bonnie Dunbar, Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Sunita Williams, and Serena Auñón-Chancellor soar in this volume, while the included projects like designing and building space rovers and creating a model of the International Space Station develop critical thinking skills. This full-color book from the Gutsy Girls Go For Science series is sure to make her look at the night sky in a whole new way.
Sally Ride is famous as the first American woman in space, but she was also so much more: a brilliant physicist who loved English literature, a nationally ranked tennis player, an advocate for girls and women in science careers, and a role model for both girls and to the LGBTQ community. In this comprehensive biography, Sue Macy gives equal treatment both to her groundbreaking role as an astronaut, to her work with NASA after her time in space (including her role in the Challenger investigation), and to her education and advocacy work after she left NASA. It's a fitting tribute to the woman who changed how girls saw the future.
In 1958 America, as the quest for space was just beginning, NASA had a rule that an astronaut had to have military pilot experience — and of course, the military only accepted men in those roles. But some people wondered if some of the equally daring women pilots of the day belonged on the first space missions. This book tells the little-known story of the Mercury 13 women, who underwent astronaut testing and training decades before the first American woman would go to space. For kids who have grown up with both male and female astronauts, reading about the Mercury 13 and their quest for the stars will shed new light on how far we've come — and how far we have to go.
In this midst of the Space Race of the 1960s, America was on the hunt for people with the Right Stuff... or rather, for men. The top test pilots of NASA's Mercury 7 astronaut class passed grueling tests to prove their suitability for space, but at the same time, a secret group of thirteen women were taking the same tests. Their hope was to prove that women pilots were just as capable of contributing to America's space program. And then, when they took their fight for consideration all the way to Washington, they were ridiculed by politicians, the public, male pilots... and even one of their own. This stunning look at the story of the Mercury 13 captures the determination of these heroic women to fight the institutionalized sexism of their day.
For decades during the early space race, NASA knew the "right" sort of person to be an astronaut — and they were all men. Talented women were denied the chance to try, even when they proved they were just as qualified. Then Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR became the first woman in space, and suddenly, NASA wanted to catch up. Group 9, NASA's first mixed gender class, still had to fight stereotypes, but they proved that women also deserved to fly. The author / illustrator pair behind Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas tells this captivating story in the voice of former astronaut Mary Cleave, creating an inspiring graphic novel that reminds readers that progress is fastest when we include everyone.
There are few figures as inspiring as an astronaut: not only are they daring adventurers, they're also intelligent, dedicated scientists! In this book from the Women of Action series, kids will read about trailblazing women from ten different countries who dreamed of traveling to space. Including important figures like the Mercury 13, Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Chiaki Mukai, Kalpana Chawla, and many more, this book shares the obstacles they faced, the wonders they saw, and the influence they've made on the world. For any science-lover or would-be space traveler, this book is full of inspiration.
In 1959, only men had been tested as astronaut candidates, but a doctor working with NASA wondered if women might fare as well in space — or even better. As an experiment, he tested record-breaking pilot Jerrie Cobb... and she exceeded expectations. After testing even more top female pilots, he identified 13 exceptional candidates for an unofficial NASA program to train possible women astronauts. But suddenly, in 1961, NASA canceled the program, ending the "Mercury 13" women's dreams of space; it would be more than 20 years before an American woman left the atmosphere. In this powerful book, author Stephanie Nolen provides a riveting account — in many cases, drawing from interviews with surviving members — that explores the rise and fall of the Mercury 13.
In 1961, NASA was launching the first American man into space... and a doctor was conducting secret testing to determine if women would make suitable astronaut candidates. A group of women pilots — many of whom had more flight hours than the men NASA had already recruited — underwent the same physical and psychological tests that male candidates did, and they proved that they could excel. But both NASA and the U.S. Congress decided that women didn't belong in space, and the thirteen women who passed the tests were cut loose. In this powerful book, Ackmann tells their stories, exploring what they sacrificed for the hope of space flight and why the boys' clubs at NASA and Capitol Hill ended their dreams too soon.
Wally Funk was a bold pilot with big dreams — so when a scientist wanted to find out if women could pass NASA's astronaut tests, she was quick to sign up. Funk's scores on the rigorous physical and mental tests were top-notch — she even outscored John Glenn, the first American in orbit — but the "Mercury 13" program testing women was canceled when women were deemed "unfit" as astronauts. Funk would go on to break other new ground, but she still imagined flying above our atmosphere. In this unique book, author Sue Nelson tells Funk's story as she and Funk, now in her 80s, travel across the US and Europe in search of the chance to fulfill her dream. Endearing, entertaining, and educational, this is a look at a pioneer of aviation and the archaic, sexist policies that kept her out of the space program.