This Pilot Is Headed To Space With Or Without NASA

Aug 4, 2017
Originally published on August 4, 2017 11:59 am

Wally Funk has spent her life in pursuit of a dream. The pilot, flight instructor and almost-astronaut longs to go to outer space.

In 1961, she was part of a group of female pilots who took part in tests to determine whether women were fit for space travel. The project was run by the same doctor who developed tests for NASA astronauts and the women became known as the Mercury 13.

"I get a call said, 'Do you want to be an astronaut?' I said, 'Oh my gosh, yes!' And he said, 'Be here on Monday to take these tests,' " the 78-year-old Funk recounted to her friend and flight student, Mary Holsenbeck, during a recent visit to StoryCorps in Dallas.

"I had needles stuck on every part of my body. Tubes running up my bottom. So I went along with it. It didn't bother me," she said. "And then they said, 'We want you to come with a swimsuit; you're going to go into the isolation tank.' Well, I didn't know what that was. The lights come down, they said try not to move. Well, I didn't have a whole lot to think about. I'm 20, I had $10 in my pocket. And then finally they said: 'Wally, you were outstanding. You stayed in 10 hours and 35 minutes. You did the best of the guys that we've had and of the girls.' "

Funk was preparing to go to Florida for more testing when she found out the program had been shut down. So, though they passed many of the same tests as the men, Funk and the other Mercury 13 women never got to go to space.

"When we got the telegram, that was it, and I never heard anything more," she explained. "So I went on about my own business. I'm not going to sit back and pine over anything."

No, Funk didn't pine. Instead, she applied to NASA four times but got turned down because she didn't have an engineering degree. But Funk hasn't given up on going to space.

"I never let anything stop me," she said. "I know that my body and my mind can take anything that any space outfit wants to give me — high altitude chamber test, which is fine ... centrifuge test, which I know I can do five and six G's. These things are ... easy for me."

Funk bought a ticket for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic commercial spaceship and hopes to be on board its maiden voyage into space. Holsenbeck plans to be there, cheering Funk on when she finally blasts off.

"You are probably the most fearless person I've ever known in my life," she told Funk, adding that the aspiring astronaut was not just her hero, but also her mentor.

"I went through a very nasty divorce and you made a phone call at the right time one afternoon that saved my life," Holsenbeck said. "You said, 'Mary, let's go flying and I said, 'Wally, I can't afford to go flying.' And you said, 'I didn't ask you that — meet me at the airport.'

"And taking me flying, you would pick out a cloud and you would say 'Mary, you see that cloud up there?' I'd say 'Yes, ma'am.' You said, 'Point the nose of this airplane toward that cloud and just fly to it.' And it was the most freeing feeling. I felt like I was in charge of something when I was in that airplane, and that helped me to put myself back in charge of my own life," Holsenbeck continued. "So yeah, you fix the problem."

The two women talk every day at 10 p.m., recounting their days. They call it their 10 o'clock flight.

"So we go up into the clouds together because Wally, you've always told me, 'When you have problems? Go to the clouds.' "

Audio produced for Morning Edition by John White.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's time now for StoryCorps. And today we're going to hear from a woman who has spent her life in pursuit of her dream of reaching outer space. Seventy-eight-year-old Wally Funk is a pilot, flight instructor, and she was almost an astronaut. In 1961, she was among a group of female pilots testing whether or not women were fit for space travel. They became known as the Mercury 13. They passed many of the same tests as the men, but never got to space.

Wally Funk hasn't given up, though. At StoryCorps she spoke to her flight student, Mary Holsenbeck.

WALLY FUNK: I get a call, said, do you want to be an astronaut? I said, oh, my gosh, yes. And he said, be here on Monday to take these tests. I had needles stuck in every part of my body, tubes running up my bottom. So I went along with it. It didn't bother me. And then they said, we want you to come with a swimsuit. You're going to go into the isolation tank. Well, I didn't know what that was.

The lights come down. They said, try not to move. Well, I didn't have a whole lot to think about. I'm 20. I had $10 in my pocket. And then finally they said, Wally, you were outstanding. You stayed in 10 hours and 35 minutes. You did the best of the guys that we've had and of the girls.

MARY HOLSENBECK: So, Wally, you went through all of these tests only to find out that the program had been shut down.

FUNK: Affirmative. When we got the telegram, that was it. And I never heard anything more. So I went on about my own business. I'm not going to sit back and pine over anything. I applied to NASA four times. And finally they said, Wally, you know, we're sorry, but you don't have an engineering degree. I said, well, I'll get one.

So I never let anything stop me. I know that my body and my mind can take anything that any space outfit wants to give me - a high-altitude chamber test, which is fine, a centrifuge test, which I know I can do five and six G's. These things are easy for me.

HOLSENBECK: I know that when it's your time to go up I'm going to be right there cheering you on. You are probably the most fearless person I've ever known in my life.

FUNK: (Laughter).

HOLSENBECK: But I don't think you truly realize that you have been not only my hero, but my mentor. I went through a very nasty divorce, and you made a phone call at the right time one afternoon that saved my life. And you said, Mary, let's go flying. And I said, Wally, I can't afford to go flying. And you said, I didn't ask you that. Meet me at the airport. And taking me flying, you would pick out a cloud and you'd say, Mary, you see that cloud up there? I said, yes, ma'am. You said, point the nose of this airplane toward that cloud and just fly to it.

And it was the most freeing feeling. I felt like I was in charge of something when I was in that airplane. And that helped me to put myself back in charge of my own life. So yeah, you fixed the problem. Every night at 10 o'clock you and I will call each other and we'd discuss our day, what went well, what didn't go well. And we call it our 10 o'clock flight.

FUNK: (Laughter).

HOLSENBECK: So we go up into the clouds together because, Wally, you've always told me when you have problems, go to the clouds.

MARTIN: Mary Holsenbeck with Wally Funk at StoryCorps in Dallas. Wally bought a ticket for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and hopes to be onboard its maiden voyage into space. This conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.