When Wally Funk launches into space later this month aboard Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, she is going to, at 82, be the oldest astronaut ever.
But she was almost the youngest.
The New Mexico native was 22 when she joined the Mercury 13 program, a bunch of intrepid girls who, again in 1961, underwent the identical coaching because the Mercury 7, NASA’s all-male crew of unique astronauts.
The girls have been by no means allowed to enter house, and hardly written about. It was a pioneering program misplaced to historical past.
Sue Nelson, a UK science author, broadcaster and creator of the 2019 ebook, “Wally Funk’s Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer” spoke with Funk after her journey plans have been made public this week by Bezos.
“She said, ‘I’ve waited a lifetime, honey,’ ” Nelson instructed The Post, including that Funk might be representing Mercury 13 when she heads into house. “She told me, ‘I am going up for all of them.’ She knows the significance.”
The Mercury 13 program lasted a yr and was privately funded.
It was began by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, who designed NASA’s strenuous examinations. He invited pilot Jerrie Cobbe to endure the identical exams because the males and he or she handed. In the subsequent yr, one other 12 girls would efficiently full the coaching — generally besting the boys.
“The general consensus was that it was a physician’s curiosity of seeing whether women could do the same,” mentioned Nelson.
They have been subjected to the identical bodily punishing exams, together with swallowing a rubber tube to check abdomen acid and having ice water squirted into their ears to induce vertigo and measure their restoration time. Nelson mentioned the latter made many bodily sick.
As a part of psychological trials, the aspiring house explorers have been remoted and put right into a darkened room, which led some to hallucinate. Nelson mentioned Funk lasted 10 and a half hours, greater than some other individual, male or female.
In Bezos’ announcement, Funk acknowledged her prowess within the battle of the sexes.
“Back in the ’60s, I was in the Mercury 13 program,” Funk mentioned. “They asked me, ‘Do you want to be an astronaut?’ I said ‘Yes.’ They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys.”
Nelson mentioned that not like the boys who skilled collectively as a bunch, the females did so in pairs. But Funk did hers solo after the opposite girl assigned to endure testing along with her dropped out on the primary day.
Some of the ladies, together with Funk, have been invited to Pensacola, Florida, for additional coaching which by no means got here to fruition.
NASA torpedoed any hopes of the ladies launching into house, requiring candidates to be graduates of navy jet take a look at pilot packages. It was an insurmountable impediment for the ladies contemplating no navy department allowed female pilots on the time.
Mercury 13 then shut down.
Cobbe tried to restart this system, showing earlier than the House Committee on Science and Astronautics’ listening to on intercourse discrimination in 1962.
“There were women on the Mayflower and on the first wagon trains west, working alongside the men to forge new trails to new vistas. We ask that opportunity in the pioneering of space,” mentioned Cobbe to no avail.
“As a result of the Americans’ hesitancy at the time, the Russians got there first with Valentina Tereshkova,” mentioned Nelson.
It wasn’t till 1983 that Sally Ride broke the barrier for American female astronauts.
In 1995, New York native Eileen Collins helmed Discovery, changing into the primary female shuttle pilot and invited the 13 trailblazers to look at the launch.
In recognition of female aviators who got here earlier than her, Collins packed a shawl as soon as worn by Amelia Earhart and keepsakes from the Mercury 13 women.
Nelson mentioned Funk gave Collins her pin from the Ninety Nines, the worldwide group for female pilots.
“A little part of her already went up,” mentioned Nelson. All of the ladies have handed away besides Funk and Gene Nora Jessen, and Nelson is thrilled their story is being instructed as soon as once more.
“There have always been women figures in space history whether they’ve been mathematicians or engineers. They were in LIFE magazine,” mentioned Nelson of the Mercury 13 girls, including, “They did get publicity but their history keeps getting forgotten.”