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The true story of the Mercury 13 and the women who never made it to space

In the early 1960s, 13 women went through a grueling set of tests to prove they could be astronauts. The program's shutdown shaped space travel for decades.

Wally Funk puts on a gas mask during testing at the Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The tests were designed to exactly replicate the testing done by the Mercury 7 astronauts to evaluate whether women were fit for space travel.
Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty

In April 1959, NASA introduced the world to seven white, clean-shaven men, each with a haircut you could set your watch to. 

All military pilots, who had undergone rigorous testing to ensure they were at the peak of their physical fitness. All chosen by NASA to be America's first astronauts -- the Mercury 7. 

The men quickly became household names as they entered NASA's space program and the grueling training needed to survive the extremes of space travel. But as NASA was putting its Mercury men to the test, one question remained: If the men could do it, couldn't women do it too? 

Wally Funk is one woman who proved that she could. 

She was part of a group now known as the Mercury 13 -- women who were put through a little-known female astronaut testing program between 1960 and 1962, all in a bid to see whether women could one day fly in space as part of America's astronaut program. 

The program was the brainchild of William Randolph Lovelace II, a medical 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 go through a privately funded program at his Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

The women were trained pilots, many of them selected through the women's aviation organization the Ninety-Nines or recruited by word of mouth. Like the male jet pilots who were tested for the Mercury program, Lovelace wanted women who could fly. 

Of the 25 women tested, 13 passed, including Wally Funk. 

Now in her 80s, Funk is bright and energetic. She had entered flight training at the age of 16, graduated at the top of her class, and became the first female flight instructor at the Fort Sill army base in Oklahoma by the time she was 20. 

When she was 21, she answered a call from friend and fellow pilot Jerrie Cobb (the first woman to start Lovelace's tests) telling her about this new private program to test female astronauts. Two weeks later, she reported to the clinic in New Mexico. 

Jerrie Cobb, one of the first women to undergo testing at the Lovelace Medical Center, is strapped to a tilt-machine to test for heart defects. 

Ralph Crane/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

The tests were exhaustive and exhausting. And Funk still remembers everything. 

"They said, 'Your body is going to have a hard time trying to pass all these things,'" she tells me over the phone from her home in Texas "I said, 'Just give it to me!' So the first thing was I just got strapped to the chair, and they injected 10-degree water into my right ear. Whoo -- that'll give you a jolt!"

There were X-rays, vision tests and tests designed to induce motion sickness. She underwent psychological profiling and a gynecological exam (the only test that the Mercury 7 astronauts didn't have to do). She had tubes passed down her throat to measure gastric juices, and electrodes put into her muscles to test how they would spasm. In the photo at the top of the page, that's Funk putting on a gas mask during testing at the Lovelace Medical Center.

She was put in a sensory deprivation tank to test her mental resilience, with nothing but two foam bricks to keep her afloat. 

"There was no light, there was no noise there was nothing. … I couldn't tell up from down," Funk says. "I think they were thinking I was going to hallucinate, but I didn't."

She lasted in there 10 hours and 35 minutes.

According to Margaret Weitekamp, chair of the space history department at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the 13 women didn't just meet the standard set by the men, they passed with flying colors. And even more impressive, according to Weitekamp, was the fact the women went through the program alone or in pairs, without any colleagues to compete against or cheer them on. 

"When you compare the tests, you can see that women have better cardiopulmonary health," she told me. "They did historically better in these tests and in others in isolation and in sensory deprivation testing. I think it's even more remarkable how well the women did, given that their testing conditions were in some ways much more difficult than what the men went through."

But despite the success of the program, the women never made it into the elite ranks of NASA's astronaut program. They were due to go for further testing at a military facility in Pensacola, Florida, but the program was shut down before they got the chance. 


Wally Funk (right), at a Virgin Galactic event in New Mexico. Wally Funk was one of 13 women who went through Lovelace's Women in Space Program in 1961 and she still wants to fly in space -- she has paid for a place on Virgin Galactic's waiting list to become a private astronaut.

Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

All these years later, Wally Funk still doesn't fully understand what happened, or why there was so much resistance to having women in the space program. 

The answer is complex. It's a story of sexism in the 1960s. Of a congressional hearing and the weigh-in of Mercury 7 astronaut John Glenn, who compared female astronauts to his mother trying out for a football team. Of a chain of events that included a letter from President Lyndon Johnson with the hand-scrawled 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 first-hand account of the female astronaut testing program that never was, and find out just why it would take another two decades after Lovelace's tests before an American woman would finally go to space. 

Making Space: The Female Frontier is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen.