The true story of the Mercury 13 and the women who never made it to space
In April 1959, NASA introduced the world to seven white, shaved men, each with a haircut that you could set your watch to.
All military pilots who have undergone rigorous tests to ensure they were at the peak of their physical fitness. All to be selected by NASA– Mercury 7.
The men quickly became household names as they enteredand the strenuous training it takes to survive the extremes of space travel. But when NASA put its Mercury men to the test, one question remained: If men could, couldn’t women?
Wally Funk is a woman who has proven she can.
She was part of a group now known as Mercury 13 – women who went through a little-known astronaut training program for women between 1960 and 1962 to see if women could one day fly in space as part of America’s astronaut program.
The program was developed by William Randolph Lovelace II, a doctor who was responsible for testing the original Mercury program astronaut candidates to ensure they were fit for space travel. Lovelace was curious to see if women could pass the same tests. So he selected 25 women to complete a privately funded program at his Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The women were trained pilots, many of whom were selected or orally recruited by the women’s aviation organization Ninety-Nines. Like the male jet pilots tested for the Mercury program, Lovelace wanted women who could fly.
Of the 25 women tested, 13 passed, including Wally Funk.
Now, in its 80s, funk is bright and energetic. She had completed flight training at age 16, graduated from the top of her class, and was the first female flight instructor at Fort Sill Military Base, Oklahoma, at age 20.
When she was 21, she answered a call from a friend and fellow pilot(the first woman to start Lovelace’s testing) told her about this new private program to test female astronauts. Two weeks later, she reported to the clinic in New Mexico.
The tests were exhaustive and exhausting. And Funk still remembers everything.
“They said, ‘Your body is going to have a hard time getting past all of these things,'” she told me over the phone from her home in Texas. “I said, ‘Just give it to me!’ The first one was that I was just strapped to the chair and they injected me with 10 degree water in my right ear. Who – this will jerk you! “
There were x-rays, eye tests, and motion sickness-causing tests. She underwent psychological profiling and a pelvic exam (the only test the Mercury 7 astronauts didn’t have to take). She had tubes in her throat to measure gastric juices and electrodes stuck in her muscles to test how they would cramp. In the photo at the top of the page, Funk puts on a gas mask while testing at Lovelace Medical Center.
She was placed in a sensory deprivation tank to test her mental resilience, with nothing but two foam stones to keep her afloat.
“There was no light, there was no noise, there was nothing. … I couldn’t tell from top to bottom,” says Funk. “I think they thought I was hallucinating, but I didn’t.”
It lasted 10 hours and 35 minutes there.
According to Margaret Weitekamp, Chair of the Department of Space History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the 13 women not only met the standard set by the men, they passed it with flying colors. According to Weitekamp, even more impressive was the fact that the women went through the program alone or in pairs, without colleagues having to compete against them or cheer them on.
“If you compare the tests, you can see that women have better cardiopulmonary health,” she told me. “They isolated themselves on these tests and other tests, and historically did better on sensory deprivation tests. I find it even more remarkable how well the women did because their test conditions were in some ways much more difficult than the men’s.”
Despite the success of the program, the women never made it into the elite of NASA’s astronaut program. They were supposed to do more testing at a military facility in Pensacola, Florida, but the program was discontinued before they had the opportunity.
All these years later, Wally Funk still doesn’t fully understand what happened or why there was so much resistance to having women on the space program.
The answer is complex. It’s a story of sexism in the 1960s. From a Congressional hearing and the weighing of Mercury 7 astronaut John Glenn, who compared female astronauts to his mother trying for a soccer team. From a chain of events that included a letter from President Lyndon Johnson with the hand-drawn words, “Let’s stop this now!”
To hear the full story, check out Episode 2 of Making Space: The Female Frontier. (You can hear the episode in the player above.) We hear Wally Funk’s firsthand account of the astronaut testing program that never existed, and find out why, after Lovelace’s tests, it would be two more decades for an American to finally do it would go into space.
Make Room: The Female Frontier is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or anywhere you listen.