Wally Funk - Space pioneer

Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk is the real star of the 2021 space race. Her story is an inspiration and we think it should be better known, so we’re doing our bit to bring the achievements of this amazing lady to the fore. 

Modern life’s narrative is packed with buzz words, we often talk about dedication and perseverance and through the reflective time that was created by the pandemic, more people have found their voice, determined not be pigeon holed and held back.

As we read the media, there’s a risk of thinking that this is all new…modern thinking, ground breaking stuff. For some people it will be, for others, they chose these paths long before there was any public interest, Wally Funk is one of those people.

A ground breaking life

Wally is an American aviator, she was the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the first female civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and the first female Federal Aviation Agency inspector. An amazing selection of accolades in themselves, but she was also one of the Mercury 13.

Mercury 13 partial line up

Who are the Mercury 13?

We should know these people, in the way we know John Glenn, Neil Armstrong et al. They have not only pushed the boundaries of what’s physically possible, but they have proved that gender should be no boundary to your achievements. The Mercury 13 were thirteen American women who, through a privately funded program, successfully underwent the same physiological screening tests as the astronauts that were selected by NASA.

In February 1961, Wally volunteered for the "Women in Space" Program, run by William Randolph Lovelace, who had the support of NASA. Although it lacked official government sponsorship. Wally contacted Lovelace, detailing her experience and achievements.

The criteria for the programme were very strict, but despite being younger than the recruiting age range (25-40), Wally was invited to take part.

Astronaut training

Strict selection

The co-ordinators of the group viewed the records of more than 700 women pilots in order to select candidates. No one with less than 1,000 hours of flight experience was even considered. Some of the women were recruited through the Ninety-Nines, a women pilot's organisation with others responding after hearing about the opportunity through friends.

This was a highly secretive and selective program, Wally has gone on record many times to say, due to the secrecy of the testing, not all of the women knew each other throughout their years of preparation. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that 10 of the Mercury 13 were introduced to each other, in person, for the first time.

Women astronauts in training

The numbers

From the 700 records, just 25 women were invited to attend an interview, 19 went on to enroll and 13 graduated, including Wally, who was the youngest. Like the other participants in the program, Wally was put through rigorous physical and mental testing. In one test, volunteers were placed in sensory deprivation tanks. Wally was in the tank, without hallucinating for 10 hours and 35 minutes setting a new record (and beating the record of the men).

On some of the other tests, she scored better than John Glenn. The media dubbed the group the "Mercury 13". This was a reference to the Mercury 7 and a name that has stuck ever since.

With all of her tests completed and passed she was ready, fully qualified to go into space. Wally’s score - the third best in the Mercury 13 program! But despite this, the program was cancelled before any of the women  got near a spacecraft.

Wally Funk fighter jet pilot

Extreme training

At the time, doctors didn’t know all of the conditions that astronauts might encounter in space, so they guessed what tests were required. These ranged from normal X-rays and general body physicals to lesser known and often not proven techniques, such as asking the women to swallow a rubber tube in order to test the level of their stomach acids.

Doctors tested the reflexes in the ulnar nerve of the woman's forearms by using electric shock! to induce vertigo - ice water was shot into their ears, freezing the inner ear so doctors could time how quickly they recovered.

All of the women were pushed to exhaustion while riding specially weighted stationary bicycles (the first excercise bikes), in order to test their stamina and respiration. These is just a couple of examples that have come to light about the program, it is believed that the women subjected themselves to many more invasive and uncomfortable tests as part of the Mercury13.

The people

Thirteen women passed the same Phase 1 physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed, which was part of NASA's astronaut selection process. Those thirteen women were:

Wally Funk, was the youngest member of the group, at just 23!

Young Wall Funk in plane

The making of Wally

We’re not sure that these factors are responsible for what made Wally the pioneering game changer that she is, but they certainly contributed to her amazing resilience and dogged determination.

As a child, she was captivated by planes. When she was just one-years-old, her parents took her to an airport near where they lived in New Mexico and she got up close to a Douglas DC-3.

"I go right to the wheel and I try to turn the nut," she says. "Mother said: 'She’s going to fly.'"

She became interested in mechanics and built her own model airplanes and ships. By the time she was seven, she was making planes from balsa wood. By aged nine, she had had her first flying lesson.

Young Wally loved the great outdoors, spending a lot of time riding her bike, horse riding, skiing, hunting, and fishing. By the age of 14, she had become an expert marksman, receiving the Distinguished Rifleman's Award. The National Rifle Association sent her incredible shooting results to the then president -Dwight Eisenhower - and he wrote back to her. At the same time she represented the southwestern United States as a top female skier in the Slalom and Downhill races within a US wide competition.

High School was tough for Wally, she wanted to take courses in mechanical drawing and auto mechanics, but because she was a girl, she wasn’t allowed, she was forced to take home economics and other subjects that were deemed more appropriate. Naturally this was a very frustrating time and so she left high school at 16.

Wally with glider

Wally knew what she wanted to do and found a place where she could pursue her dream – to fly. Next stop was Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. Where she became a member of the "Flying Susies" going on to be rated first in her class of 24 fliers. She graduated in 1958 with her pilot's license and an Associate of Arts degree.

University was next with a Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education at Oklahoma State University, which might sound like a strange move, but Wally was drawn there by their famous "Flying Aggies" program.

While at university, Wally earned a large number of aviation instrumentation and instruction ratings, including her Commercial, Single-engine Land, Multi-engine Land, Single-engine Sea, Instrument, Flight Instructor's, and all Ground Instructor's ratings.

She was also elected to be an officer of the "Flying Aggies" and flew for them in the International Collegiate Air Meets. Whilst flying with the group she received the "Outstanding Female Pilot" trophy, the "Flying Aggie Top Pilot" and the "Alfred Alder Memorial Trophy" two years in succession.

In 1964, her work in aviation was recognised when she became the youngest woman in the history of Stephen's College to receive the Alumna Achievement Award.

Wally military pilot achievements

First job

Aged 20 Wally became a professional aviator. Her first job was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a Civilian Flight Instructor of non-commissioned and commissioned officers of the United States Army.

Wally was the first female flight instructor at a US military base. In 1961, she accepted a job as a Certified Flight Instructor, Charter, and Chief Pilot with an aviation company in Hawthorne, California.

She earned her Airline Transport Rating in 1968, she then applied to three commercial airlines but, like other qualified female pilots, was turned away because of her gender.

In 1971, Wally earned the rating of flight inspector from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), becoming the first woman to complete the FAA's General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course, which includes Pilot Certification and Flight Testing procedures, handling accidents, and violations.

She worked at the FAA for four years as a field examiner - the first woman to do so. In 1973 she was promoted to FAA SWAP (Systems Worthiness Analysis Program) as a specialist, the first woman in the United States to hold this position. In late November 1973, Wally again entered the FAA Academy to take courses involving air-taxi, charter, and aviation rental businesses.

In 1974, Wally was hired by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as its first female Air Safety Investigator. Where she investigated 450 accidents, ranging from a probable mob hit to a fatal crash at a mortuary. She made the discovery that people who die in small-plane crashes often have their jewellery, shoes and clothes stripped off by the impact.

Heart racing

Whilst working at the FAA Wally entered many air races. She placed 8th in the Powder Puff Derby's 25th Annual Race, 6th in the Pacific Air Race, and 8th in the Palms to Pines Air Race. On August 16, 1975, she placed second in the Palms to Pines All Women Air Race from Santa Monica, California to Independence, Oregon. On October 4, 1975, flying her red and white Citabria, Wally won the Pacific Air Race from San Diego, California to Santa Rosa, California against 80 participating competitors.

Wally Funk, 82 years young


Wally retired from her post as an Air Safety Investigator in 1985 after serving for 11 years. She was then appointed as an FAA Safety Counsellor and developed a reputation as a renowned pilot trainer and speaker on aviation safety.

In 1986, she was the key speaker for the US at The World Aviation Education and Safety Congress. In 1987, she was appointed Chief Pilot at Emery Aviation College, Greeley, Colorado, overseeing the entire flight programs for 100 students from Private to Multi-engine flight Instructor and Helicopter ratings.

Wally Funk has been chief pilot for five aviation schools across the U.S. To date, as a professional Flight Instructor she has soloed more than 700 students and put through 3,000 Private, Commercial, Multi-engine, Seaplane, Glider, Instrument, CFI, Al, and Air Transport Pilots.

Never giving up

Wally Funk has always dreamt of going into space. When NASA finally began accepting women in the late 1970's, she applied three times. Unbelievably, she was turned down for not having an engineering degree or a background as a test pilot despite her impressive aviation credentials.

In 1995, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle into space, unfortunately Wally was too old to qualify to become a space shuttle pilot by this time. 

In 2012, Wally put money down to be one of the first people to fly into space via Virgin Galactic. The money for the flight came from Wally’s book and film royalties along with personal savings.

2021 Space Race

Now it’s Wally’s turn

On the 1st July,  Jeff Bezos’ space exploration initiative, Blue Origin announced that Wally would fly on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard. She will be part of a 4 person crew with Jeff Bezos. Wally will make history again this year as the oldest person to fly to space, passing John Glenn's record, who at the age of 77 was aboard STS-95 in 1998.

Roughly 24 hours later Richard Branson announced that he would travelling into space ahead of Bezos and Funk and suddenly the Space Race started all over again.

We are in awe of Wally and her achievements and her resilience - pushing the envelope of every aspect of life, never giving up on her dream and we cannot wait to see that dream realised in just a few days time! Go Wally!