Women in Space: The Story of Wally Funk

By Elizabeth Hallissey, C2ST Intern, Loyola University

This week marks the 22nd annual World Space Week. The event was created in 1999 by the United Nations as a way to celebrate, “science and technology, and their contribution to the betterment of the human condition”. This year, the week-long event celebrates the achievements of women in space. In honor of this year’s theme, I will be telling the story of one woman who was not granted the same fame, notoriety, and opportunities as her male counterparts. 

In July of this year, as many remember, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos launched himself into space. While there was some public debate regarding the ethics of this excursion, one key thing happened that that is worthy of unequivocal celebration. His crew, though small and relatively unqualified, had one outstanding pilot and trained astronaut on board: Wally Funk.

 

Funk started her journey to space early, receiving her pilot’s license at only 17 years of age. Once she mastered air travel, space travel was next on the list. At 21, she was one of the 13 women who passed the rigorous testing of NASA’s training program–also known as the Mercury 13. Many of these women, Wally included, scored higher than the men who actually ended up in space. The program that sought to put these women in space–accurately named the Women in Space Program–was shut down just as the space race was taking off. She then applied to space missions four more times, but was denied every time due to her lack of an engineering degree. John Glenn, the first man to orbit the globe, also did not have an engineering degree. Funk was shot down at every possible opportunity.

Finally, at 82 years old, Funk was given the chance to get to space.

For the 61 years leading up to this momentous occasion, she was denied entry to space based on her gender. Time and time again her qualifications were highly scrutinized, while men with similar or lesser qualifications made it out of earth’s atmosphere. Space has always belonged to men–I’d argue that it still does for the most part–but thankfully, the future of STEM is becoming progressively more female. 

It’s women like Wally whose existence encourages women and girls to pursue careers in space travel and related fields. Oftentimes, women don’t even attempt to enter these fields, as they are acutely aware of the potential treatment they may face upon entering them. Wally Funk was in space for 11 minutes. She, and many other women, deserved to be in space back in the ’60s, but that access was denied to them. Respect is not often granted to women in male-dominated fields. Wally’s story is an example of this, but as time moves forward, and the collective consciousness shifts, women are beginning to gain access to these once exclusive positions. And while many questions remain regarding the future of commercialized special travel, Funk’s trip emphasizes a historically understated sentiment: space belongs to all.

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