Chicago Review Press, 256 pages, $26.99
It all began for her right here in New Mexico, when Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk jumped from the roof of her family’s barn in Taos while wearing a Superman suit. She survived the landing, and nearly 75 years later, she hasn’t given up on her dream of going to space. In fact, she secured a seat on SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s passenger spaceplane, which would bring her back to New Mexico for the launch.
As the world prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July, BBC journalist Sue Nelson made the interesting choice of writing a book about the accomplishments of a female astronaut who never made it to space. She tells the story of a female test pilot selected at age twenty-three for a privately funded Woman in Space program in 1961.
Funk and 12 other female candidates passed the same rigorous physiological screenings as astronauts selected in 1959 for NASA’s Project Mercury, and in fact, did better in a couple tests. But the women’s program was shut down one week before the final phase of training. The female astronauts endured discrimination from the federal government, the media, and their male counterparts — including John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, who testified before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics that women could not qualify for the space program under NASA criteria, which required that astronauts spend time as test pilots. This was a Catch-22 because women were not allowed to work as test pilots in the military.
Nelson describes the prejudice that long hampered women in astronautics worldwide, even as recently as 2015, when Helen Sharman — the first British astronaut and first woman to visit the Mir space station in 1991 — was inexplicably omitted from a press release issued in 2013 by the UK Space Agency, announcing the first Briton on a space station would be a man. And recently, the first all-female spacewalk planned by NASA had to be scrubbed because, well, there are not two space suits available that properly fit both of the women, Anne McClain and Christina Koch. McClain was replaced with a male astronaut, Nick Hague, for the spacewalk from the International Space Station. (By the end of March, both McClain and Koch had each completed their first spacewalks, just not together.)
Remarkably, even though sexism and politics prevented Funk from making it into space, she went on to become America’s first female aviation safety inspector. Many of the anecdotes shared by Nelson illustrate Funk’s lifelong sense of adventure and determination, including recent examples. For instance, regarding Funk’s reservation for a flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo: “Once in space, passengers can unbuckle their seat belts — assuming Wally has fastened hers in the first place — and will experience several minutes of weightlessness.” Nelson also describes instances illustrating what she calls Funk’s “fearsome will,” such as her investigation of the crash of a Cessna and PSA Flight 182, a commuter flight from Sacramento via Los Angeles to San Diego. Described as the “worst recorded aircraft disaster in California and U.S. aviation history,” Funk was its lead NTSB investigator; Nelson provides a compelling look at the process as well as her subject’s resolve.
The book also engagingly covers the travels of Nelson and Funk across the United States and Europe. They make stops at NASA’s mission control in Houston, the European Space Agency’s HQ in Paris, and Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Funk’s space trip awaits. Now that NASA has banned use of the term “manned spaceflight” in favor of “human spaceflight,” maybe the likelihood of people traveling to the cosmos is accelerating. This book leaves readers hopeful that Funk will at long last have a chance to slip the surly bonds of Earth.