When Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk hit the limit of space aboard the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule earlier today, it marked the end of a journey she began. 60 years ago. In 1961, she became the youngest member of what would later become known as “Mercury 13”, a group of accomplished aviators who volunteered to undergo the same physical and mental qualification tests as astronauts. NASA Mercury. But the promising experiment was cut short by the space agency’s strict requirements for potential astronauts, and what John Glenn called in his testimony to the Committee on Science and Astronautics the “social order” of America at the time.
Best of the best
Before NASA could launch the first American into space, it had to decide what qualifications its ideal astronaut should have. An initial idea that the agency should pursue thrill seekers such as race car drivers or extreme sports enthusiasts made sense given the immense risks involved, but it was ultimately decided that it would be more useful. on the agenda if the occupants of these early spacecraft were experienced pilots with a background in science or engineering. The hope was that these people could provide valuable insight into the design and performance of the spacecraft, and if the need arises, diagnose and potentially even fix a problem on board the spacecraft themselves. .
Thus, in addition to meeting the age and physical condition requirements, applicants for the Mercury project had to have completed a university education in a STEM subject and have experience piloting jet planes. While there was little that could traditionally be considered piloting to do with these early spacecraft, experiencing the speed, altitude, and complexity associated with jets was considered a requirement. important prerequisite.
President Eisenhower, who himself learned to fly in the military, insisted that the final selection be more limited to active-duty military test pilots; the idea being that these people would not only be in optimal physical condition, but would be particularly qualified to drive experimental vehicles and would have an above average tolerance for risk.
While the extremely narrow criteria used to select Mercury’s first astronauts were arguably justified, they invalidated many excellent candidates. Legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, who should have been on NASA’s manned space program shortlist, was not in contention because he never attended college. Neil Armstrong, who had previously flown the X-15 at incredible speeds and altitudes, was also excluded from participation because he had not been in active service since 1952.
While no NASA document specifically stated that Project Mercury astronauts had to be male, the requirement for military service prevented a woman from passing the selection process. There were certainly some highly skilled female pilots in the United States, many of whom served their countries testing and transporting military planes as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, but they were all civilians. . Of course, this was hardly a surprise, as the Air Force wouldn’t accept female pilots for 15 years.
This de facto discrimination did not go unnoticed by Jacqueline Cochran, a leading aviator and responsible for the WASP program during the war. Cochran was not only a woman of considerable influence and wealth, but also had a close personal friendship with William Randolph Lovelace, chairman of NASA’s Special Advisory Committee on the Life Sciences. Convinced that women could be effective astronauts if given the chance, the two launched a privately funded project that aimed to subject female volunteers to the same rigorous qualification process that NASA used for Project Mercury. .
In 1960, Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was asked not only to be the first woman to undergo the grueling tests, but also to help identify other potential candidates for what were called the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLAT). Having already set records for endurance, altitude and speed, Cobb was an ideal choice for the program and was able to complete all three phases of the NASA Astronaut Qualifying Exam. In fact, her results place her in the top 2% of applicants; a better figure than some of the men who were ultimately selected to fly on Project Mercury.
Encouraged by this early success, Lovelace and Cobb invited nineteen other women to take the tests. Several of the candidates were well known in the air racing community, and all were accomplished pilots with over 1,000 hours of flying experience.
A shortened experience
Twelve of the women who were invited to become FLAT passed the first phase of trials at the Lovelace clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, due to family and professional commitments, only two candidates, Wally Funk and Rhea Hurrle, were able to advance to the second phase of testing. This part of the program consisted of psychological and neurological examinations, including long periods of time spent in a sensory deprivation pool, where women were said to outperform men by a considerable margin.
Unfortunately, neither woman was able to make it through to the final stages of testing. Just days before testing began at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Florida, the project was halted. Without the support of NASA or the military, Lovelace was told that applicants would not be allowed to use government facilities, planes and equipment necessary to qualify women.
In an effort to secure the proper permissions for the Lovelace program, Jerrie Cobb and other FLATs petitioned President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. In July 1962, a congressional hearing was convened, known as the Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts, which sought to determine whether gender discrimination played a role in the NASA astronaut selection process.
When called to testify, astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter pointed out that no matter how well their physical and mental examinations were, none of them qualified to be a military test pilot. in active service. But Glenn also admitted that NASA’s stipulation that applicants held a STEM degree had in fact been lifted in his case, as the agency was willing to view his engineering background as an equivalent. In response, Congressman James Fulton from Pennsylvania asked why NASA couldn’t establish a civilian flight experience equivalency for applicants who were not military pilots.
But to the surprise of many, the most damning testimony against Lovelace’s program ended up coming from the woman who helped start it, Jacqueline Cochran. While she argued that exploring how women’s minds and bodies cope with the rigors of spaceflight was a laudable endeavor, she believed that FLATs and the debate around them had become damaging to the main objective of NASA. If America was going to beat the Soviet Union on the moon, Cochran said it was “natural and appropriate” for the nation’s astronauts to be selected from “the group of male pilots who had already proven by testing. high-speed precision aircraft and flights they were experienced, proficient and qualified to deal with possible emergencies in a new environment.
A lasting impression
Despite Lovelace’s groundbreaking research, FLAT’s hard work, and Jerrie Cobb’s passionate testimony to the Special Astronaut Selection Subcommittee, no women were selected for NASA’s Gemini or Apollo programs. Ultimately, it was the Soviet Union that launched the first woman into space when Valentina Tereshkova conducted her solo mission in 1963; twenty years before NASA sent Sally Ride to STS-7.
But the mark these women left on the US space program has not been forgotten. Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, invited the surviving FLATs to its launch in 1995. Now known to the media as Mercury 13, the women were treated to a VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Center and the space shuttle launch facilities.
Until Wally Funk accompanied Jeff Bezos on the first crewed flight of his company’s suborbital spacecraft, the history books would have recorded that none of the FLATs had ever achieved their goal of traveling to space. The trade mission not only validated the work accomplished by these pioneering women, but allowed Funk to forge an entirely new path. She may have missed the opportunity to be one of America’s first female astronauts, but at 82, she has now set the record for the oldest.
While this may not be an official record, no astronaut in the history of human spaceflight has waited longer for the chance to put their training into practice. Congratulations, Wally Funk.