Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Why Jeff Bezos chose this female astronaut from NASA’s Mercury 13

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When Wally Funk launches into space on Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin later this month, she will be the oldest astronaut ever at age 82.

But she was almost the youngest.

The New Mexico native was 22 when she joined the Mercury 13 program, a group of intrepid women who, back in 1961, went through the same training as the Mercury 7 as NASA’s all-male crew of native astronauts .

Women were never allowed into space, and hardly anything was written about them. It was a pioneering event to be lost in history.

Sue Nelson, a UK science writer, broadcaster and 2019 book author, “Wally Funk’s Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer” spoke with Funk after Bezos made his travel plans public this week.

“She said, ‘I’ve waited a lifetime, honey,'” Nelson told The Post, adding that Funk would represent Mercury 13 when he went to space. “She told me, ‘I’m going upstairs to all of them.’ She knows the importance.”

The Mercury 13 program lasted one year and was privately funded.

It was started by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, who designed NASA’s rigorous tests. He invited pilot Jerry Kobe to undergo the same tests as the men, and she passed. The following year, another 12 females would successfully complete the training – sometimes besting the males.

“The general consensus was that it was a physician’s curiosity to see if women could do the same,” Nelson said.

They were subjected to physically punitive tests, including swallowing a rubber tube to test stomach acid and vertigo and pouring ice water into their ears to measure their recovery time. Nelson said the latter made many people physically ill.

As part of the psychological tests, the aspiring space explorers were isolated and put in a dark room, which caused some to hallucinate. Nelson said the funk lasted 10 and a half hours, more than any other person, male or female.

In Bezos’ announcement, Funk acknowledged his prowess in the battle of the sexes.

“Back in the ’60s, I was on the Mercury 13 program,” Funk said. “He asked me, ‘Do you want to be an astronaut?’ I said yes.’ He told me that I did a better job than any boy and got the job done faster.”

Nelson said that unlike men who trained together as a group, women did so in pairs. But Funk did it all alone when the other woman was kicked out on the first day to test with him.

Members of Mercury 13 gather for a photo in 1995.
Wally Funk (second from left, in 1995) was a member of the Mercury 13 program, a group that sought to recruit female astronauts in the 1960s.
AP

Some women, including Funk, were invited to Pensacola, Florida for further training, which never came to fruition.

NASA torpedoed any hopes of women launching into space, requiring candidates to be graduates of military jet test pilot programs. This was a major handicap for women, as no military branch allowed women pilots at that time.

Wed 13 closed again.

Kobe tried to revive the program in 1962 during a hearing of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics on sex discrimination.

“There were women on the Mayflower and on the first wagon trains of the West, working with men to forge new avenues on new paths. We in the pioneers of space sought that opportunity,” Kobe said, to no avail. Not done.

“As a result of the Americans’ hesitation at the time, the Russians got there first with Valentina Tereshkova,” Nelson said.

It wasn’t until 1983 that Sally Ride broke the barrier for American female astronauts.

In 1995, New York native Eileen Collins piloted Discovery, became the first female shuttle pilot, and invited 13 trailblazers to watch the launch.

In recognition of the female aviators who came before him, Collins packed a scarf once worn by Amelia Earhart and the keepers from Mercury 13 Women.

Nelson said that Funk gave Collins his pin from Ninety Nine, the international organization for female pilots.

“A small part of that has already gone up,” Nelson said. All the women except Funk and Jean Nora Jason have passed away, and Nelson is thrilled that her story is being told once again.

“There have always been women in space history whether they were mathematicians or engineers. They were in LIFE magazine,” said Nelson of the Mercury 13 women, “they got publicity but their history is forgotten.”

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