Wally Funk

Book review: ‘Wally Funk’s Race for Space’ by Sue Nelson

Image credit: Westbourne Press

The story of one woman’s efforts to break the glass ceiling to space.

The place of women in society has been a topic of conversation and analysis for many years, but few books have been published on the role of women in the space profession. In common with other career paths, women have come second place in the race for space. While it’s true that Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, in 1963, just two years after Yuri Gagarin, it was another 19 years before the Soviet Union flew its second female cosmonaut. On the other side of the space race, there was a gap of more than 22 years between first man (Alan Shepard) and first woman (Sally Ride).

Sue Nelson’s book ‘Wally Funk’s Race for Space’ (Westbourne Press, £9.99, ISBN 9781908906380), out in paperback this month, tells the story of a woman who strived to break the glass ceiling to space.

Mary Wallace ‘Wally’ Funk was, according to the author, “determined to become one of the first women in space” as one of the so-called ‘Mercury 13’, the collective term for the 13 American women who qualified for the ‘Woman in Space Program’. They were all subjected to the same medical tests, including electric shocks and ice-cold water poured in the ears, as the famous ‘Mercury 7’ that flew the eponymous one-man space capsules of the 1960s. Unfortunately, says the author, “a combination of politics and prejudice meant that none of the Mercury 13 ever flew into space”.

The book’s subtitle – ‘The extraordinary story of a female aviation pioneer’ – is a fair summary. Funk became the first female civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill in Oklahoma at the age of 21; the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board; and the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration. Now 80, she still hopes to get into space aboard one of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights but, as Nelson points out, it’s “a race against time”.

The book’s blurb characterises it as an “offbeat odyssey”. It is written partly from the author’s perspective of her meetings with the subject, which adds an immediacy not present in most biographies, and partly as historic narrative. At one point, Nelson shouts at Funk to keep her “hands on the wheel” rather than groping around the back seat of a car, and later worries about the “hundreds of loose photographs and highly flammable newspaper cuttings” on Funk’s electric hob.

The story resembles an impromptu road trip, with female bonding and empowerment issues viewed against a backdrop of high adrenaline air and space travel. It’s impossible not to be carried along on the ride.

The author admits her surprise that, despite her own best efforts, the role of the Mercury 13 is not more widely known. This book should help in that regard, not least by bringing the remarkable Wally Funk to our collective attention. But the fact remains that, of the 540-odd people who have flown in space, only 11 per cent have been women. Arguably, for the underrepresented sex, it is not so much a race to space as a marathon.

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