tv [untitled] May 26, 2012 8:00am-8:30am EDT
we revisit the space program's earliest days as we hear from wally funk, one of 13 women selected by nasa to be the first lady astronaut trainees or f.l.a.t.s, called the mercury 3 13, as they underwent the same tests their male counterparts, the "mercury 7" astronauts. these women never flew a nasa mission. miss funk was interviewed as part of the nasa johnson space center oral history collection. this is about 50 minutes. this is carol butler and i'm doing an oral history for the nasa history office with wally funk, retired ntsb investigator, senior flight instructor, chief pilot, wonderful woman of aerospace. thank you for joining us today. >> thank you very much for having me. >> to begin, if we could talk briefly about your early career
and your interest in aviation developing and how you moved forward into the aerospace career as a woman. >> well, aerospace really was not a name in my young life, but flying airplanes was. and i got my first try at flying, just pure flying, by flying my superman cape off my daddy's barn when i was about 5 years old. and then i was allowed to make airplanes out of blocks of wood and hang them from my ceiling. when i went on it to college, i was allowed to take flying as my mother had dearly loved flying and her father wouldn't allow her to, so they encouraged me then to go on into my aviation career. i was at a girls' school for two years, got my private there. then i went on to oklahoma state university who was the best flight school in the united states at that time from, say,
the mid-'50s on to the '70s and i'm an international judge for safe con, performances forral schools, universities and colleges, so now i'm giving back the safety that i've learned over my 44 years of instruction to the kids that are just starting out and flying that i started in in the late '50s. so it all has come around full circle. oklahoma state afforded me most of the rest of all my ratings. i would trade off mowing grass between the runways for my glider rating. or my seaplane rating. and that was a great experience of a kid of 19 doing such things, and there was never any eyes raised or eyebrows raised about what's that girl doing? i had grate parental enthusiasm
and helping me to continue my education that i wanted in aviation. and it wasn't until i graduated from oklahoma state and went down to oklahoma where i was a flight instructor that i learned about jerry kolb had been in phase two of the magazine cover of "life" magazine. and i wrote immediately to the doctor that had used her as a subject was dr. seacrest and he puts me in touch with dr. lovelace at albuquerque, new mexico, and within two days dr. lovelace writes back, fill out this form and your date is a month away. can you come? so i was not on the original list, but -- and i was 21 and i
was too young. so they had to get extra permission for me to take the same test as the "mercury 7" astronauts took. now, they have picked 25 women candidates out of the records -- there weren't records in washington, d.c., if in those days. for this there were and at 99 headquarters. it wasn't as it is today. so comprehensive. they found women who had a college education, over 1,000 hours of flight time, had to have a commercial instrument rating, top physical condition, and be willing to go through these tests. so i said, yes, of course i want to go and, yes, of course get information for me to go because i'm just a kid. well, it turned out that was to my benefit because i had no preconceived ideas of what was going to happen in any of these
tests. i had no idea that things could be done to my body and to my mind that they did do as a yo g youngster, as you will. being a grown-up now, i might have had some reservations going in as the other women probably did. i took a lot of pain that was aso associated with some of the tests that we took. i took it in stride. it was going to get me one step closer into space, and this is where i wanted to go. and of course i did as much as i could in space exploration for physical tests, psychological tests, as possible to get me into absolutely a race for space against russia in those days. so it's interesting to know that 25 women were put through the tests but 13 passed. so that's why we're called the mercury 13. now, unfortunately, the lady -- we went through by twos but the lady that i went through never made it through the first day.
we all didn't know who each other were not until four years ago did we know who each other were in total. and, of course, i was in a flourishing field of my own, so i didn't get to go to some of these meetings that the other with women could go to because they were retired and i was still working. but we finally all got together and exchanged stories, and i hope you will get many of these gals' stories. i applied to nasa four different times to be turned down four different times because i did not have an engineering degree and they gave me nine months to obtain such a degree which was an impossibility. gerry cobb and i had at one time described we would buy a jet aircraft from england, which was called a small vampire, but then nasa reorganize d their rules
that you had to have jet pilot time. this was impossible for a girl to have in those days. it's taken us 30 years for eileen to go up into space, and she was the first girl to be able to go through edwards air force base, so she was 20 years in front of us. so the thing i'm most happy about is eileen is going to be in that left seat in less than two days. she had a vision, and at 5, she knew that she wanted to fly and she patterned her life -- there was at least enough knowledge out there to pattern one's life. she had to get her licenses. she had to go into the air force. she blossomed in the air force. got on with nasa. this is her second trip up, but we've got a girl in the left seat and that is just absolutely incredible. and this is going to show youngsters and young ladies that are going to see this particular program that you can do anything you want to do with your life,
math, sciences, engineering, very important to stick with and have is as your personal goals. eileen's tenacity, her personal goals, her dedication has made it possible for you and i to come together and a lot of people from around the world to kol together. >> absolutely. it's fabulous. absolutely. before you got involved in the testing program, had you thought about even the possibility of going into space before? >> before i read about gerry cobb? didn't even know about it. it was not something we knew about. it was just as new as new. we didn't know what astronaut meant. >> so you just jumped into it -- >> absolutely. i knew that was for me. i wanted to go into exploration.
i've always been sort of an explorer in my youth. >> great. and you've continued to be an explorer. you're exploring still. >> yes. i hope to go on to russia and be a part of a cross training of american astronauts and russian cosmonauts so that we can use their facility at star city and go through some of the same tests that eileen's gone through in houston. i've been down to houston many times. i've observed what she has done and with the astronauts down there, but i could never have the chance of partaking in such a wonderful schooling. >> it will be interesting to see how the training that you're able to go through in star city measures up with the it testing and training that you did do earlier when you first started out as a 21-year-old not knowing
anything about the space opportunities. >> well, what's interesting about your statement is we've come such a long way in technology that the things i was tested on people aren't tested on anymore. they were testing us to our extremes, to how much can we take of ten-degree water being injected in our ears and how fast is our eye going to stare at a particular object, and i'd have no control over my body, and was i going to fall off or not? and yes, i would have had i not been strapped into a dentist's chair. or what would i do in a tank of water that was -- and the humidity of the room that was so perfectly controlled to my temperature that i couldn't feel the water on my hands or my face because there was no hearing, smelling, all of your senses were were taken away from you and you were to stay in there as
long as possible and i broke the record of 10 hours and 35 minutes. >> that must have been a very interesting experience. >> you know, it was so easy for me. as a youngster then, you didn't have a lot on your mind as youngsters today do. and the question always comes up, how could you stand 10 hours and 35 minutes? on the contrary when they said how long do you think you've been in there, i said, oh, i wasn't hungry, i didn't have any bodily needs, about five hours. so everybody that has taken this particular test has cut their time in half which is unbeknownst to the scientists today in an isolation situation, everyone cuts their time in half. now the guys, the mercury 7, were sat in a lit room. you can count a lot of things in a lit room and entertain yourself where i was on my back floating in this water with all my five basic senses taken away, couldn't smell, touch, taste anything, and just had to lay
there. now they wanted me to talk or sing, but in those days i didn't talk. this would be a very difficult interview if this was a long time ago, but i've learned to talk since then. >> well, that's good. you mentioned a couple of the other tests, the water and the air. what were some of the other -- as you came down for the first phase of testing, what were some of those tests and at any point did you stop and think, what am i doing or anything along those lines? >> to answer your last question, first, no, i had not a shadow of a doubt i was their subject. they could do anything with me that they wanted to do. and i didn't it know that you could get x-rayed from from head to toe and it would take a whole day and every single tooth and every single bone, but they w t wanted perfect specimens at that time. now let's go back to the men, the mercury. there were 159 men selected from the armed services to go through
these tests at lovelace. how many were selected? 25 women were selected and how many passed? 13. so do we have a little bit of information here on how well do women do things, how well did they come across on the mayflower? terrific. how well did they go across the prairies and settle the west in their covered wagons? great. big families, didn't think anything about it. why can't we fly and go into space? the men today that think we can't, as women, do things, sorry, folks. we can do it. a woman, and i'm sure eileen, has tried extra hard to do her best because nobody wants to
fail, but -- and failure is not a part of my makeup. i do the best i can do and i kick as many doors in as i possibly can no matter where i go. >> and you have fun doing it. >> oh, yeah. i love life. you bet. >> that's wonderful. that's the way to do it. you have to enjoy life. as you were doing the testing, you said you didn't know any of the other women that were going through but you had, of course, read about gerry cobb. after you were done with the first phase, what contact did you have with people running the program or with dr. lovelace, or how did it continue that you could go on with the next phases of the testing? >> i found out what gerry cobb had done down in pensacola, because she had done this about, oh, six months to a year prior to my going through -- oops. >> we talked about how you became involved in the second round of the testing and how you found out about the opportunity.
>> well, the second round of testing would be what gerry cobb had gone through in pensacola, florida, and we were to have had a chance to go down, but it was all scrubbed, most likely a political situation. but a lot of the girls were disappointed in that, but i kind of went on and -- went on to an alternate and went overseas for years. i've learned about many countries. i was in 59 countries, and i did a lot of camping and met a lot of neat, neat people i still stay in correspondence with. anyway, i learned what the pensacola tests were all about. so i kind of made a list of what i could do in california and various states. so at usc, i was able to take the centrifuge test. now, being a civilian and being a girl they would only give me three gs and i could not have a
"g" suit. only men could have those hinges. so i called mother up in california and i said, mom, i need your worst mary which hido girdle when you were a girl. can you get those to me? you bet you. so i modified and made my own "g" suit out of her mary widow and just stuffed my body in this tight little thing and put my flight suit over it because i knew once they started to twirl me around in the centrifuge they thought i was going to go out within the first go around of three gs but i knew to keep the blood rushed up in my body and in my head. so obviously they gave me three gs for two minutes at a time, and the cameras were set at different places. okay. we went second round. no big deal. i punched out the buttons and
lights that were were coming up for my assignments. third time around, no big deal. feeling a little tired, but it was okay. the fourth time around, i don't know if the guy really hit the button and gave me a few more gs or it was really that many more gs -- that same amount of gs but my body not having a rest in between, but what happens is when you're going around this long arm, extended arm, going around this room very, very quickly and trying to punch out the different lights that they're giving you as assignments, you start to gray out. and when the gray out effect starts is when the blood is coming down from your brain and about half-mast to your eyes part of it's gray and the rest i could see you. well, i knew that was happening so i just clenched up my body and my neck and i pushed all that blood back up in my head and it cleared up. so then i could keep doing my head. i never told them until it came out in "dateline" 25-some years later that i had made my own "g"
suit and i passed with flying colors. >> that's great. >> then the other test was the martin baker seat ejection test at el ittorro and that is where was placed in a particular flight suit and parachute rig and i was shot up on a long, long pole -- it's almost like go hit the gong -- and then come down with a crash. and i was a lightweight. i only weighed about 110 pounds then. and so obviously i went up as far up as the slide would go but came down with a terrible thud, not really realizing what was happening. and to make this thing go, there was kind of like a lot of powder -- like not dynamite or not like a lot of firecrackers but a bunch of firecrackers, i guess you could say, underneath my seat and what i did, i would pull this canopy up over my helmet to keep my head rigidly back against the back head rest
so that my head wouldn't come forward because you could break your neck and ride the post up. but coming down with a thud, i didn't realize but the guys knew it, i would have a tremendous headache and you could have a back compression. well, i had never told anybody i had broken my back skiing trying to prepare for the olympics, so i thought, uh-oh, wonder if anything has happened here, but nothing happened. i was fine. so i just got -- they took all the gear off me and the next thing they just ushered me right into the high-altitude chamber test. and in those days they could take a civilian up to 39,000. today it's only 29,000. and we zoomed on up there and, boy, on 100% oxygen, i was feeling great. i mean, that's just the best way to, they say, get over a hangover or to get rid of a headache is to breathe 100% oxygen. so i was feeling great and, of
course, here comes the test. wally, take your mask off. i take my mask off. and we want you to write your name and anything you want and then add some numbers on this piece of paper. so at that altitude you can only last a matter of 10, 15 seconds without oxygen again. so i'm writing and i think i'm doing just really terrific because you have a euphoria, a feeling of well-being here without oxygen. and this is how come a lot of a airplane people have accidents because they have a feeling of euphoria, they're not getting the right oxygen to their brain to read their instrumentation correctly, and then they get into trouble. well, of course, we had a lot of noses pressed up against every window lack iing at this girl i there because they'd never had a girl before wondering how she is going to do it with her mask off. so i'm just writing down and doing my assignment thinking i'm doing a great job, and i heard it but i didn't respond. they said, wally, put your mask
on 0. wally, pull the your mask on. but, you see, i was already in another state of deterioration of no oxygen to the brain. and they let me go as long as possible and then somebody just slapped the mask on me and then everything came clear as a bell and i wrote -- and i looked down at what i was writing. it was all scribble. and not only had i not stopped at the page here, i'd gone into infinity, oh, this is doing great. that was the high-altitude test. and the last test was phase three which was conduct ed at te v.a. hospital in oklahoma city and that's where we're put into the tank as i had described earlier. >> what an interesting array of tests that you went through. >> and then on top of it in the 80s i went to space camp for a week. i've done everything i could possibly do to learn and grasp more about the wonderful world
of space travel. >> that's great. such a -- it's good to see so interested in maintaining that enthusiasm that helps to pass it on to others. >> absolutely. kids today have a wealth of knowledge if they just have parents or a teacher to say you can do anything you want to do and go after it. the encouragement of going after it. taking all of the math and science and engineering courses throughout and kids are on computers today. the youngsters i'm teaching to fly today, i have 16 and 17-year-olds this summer that i'm teaching, they're grasping flying and i'm showing them at seven and eight hours because of the computer industry that they're learning to fly on the computers. so this is pretty neat. >> a whole new way to learn. >> yeah. i mean, they show -- there's no way to teach me. when i learned, i learned by the seat of my pants.
and you show me and then i respond, and that's exactly how i learned how to fly. it wasn't really out of reading a book. it was show and tell. in my acrobatic instructions i would look at the picture, have somebody she me and off i'd go. >> a good way to learn just by doing it as you go. while you were doing the testing, shortly after that they had congressional hearings actually dealing with bringing women in astacio troe nauts when nasa was hiring the second group of male astronauts. were you aware of those at the time or -- >> i can't really remember. i don't remember exactly where i was at that period of time, and i've been asked that over and over again. i don't think any of us knew what gerry and jany hart had to prepare themselves to do to
defend us as a group. mind you, we didn't know each other yet. and so i knew jackie cochrane. she had been very generous to support phase one financially. and i've had wonderful letters from her and from gercobb but i didn't realize. i was out of the country or so buried in my work i didn't realize until after it was over with that these hearings had gone on. and then that's when we found out the parameters our jet test pilot experience to be an astronaut which let us out of the league. >> for the time being at least -- >> yes, yes. thank you for adding that because eileen did it. we have three girl test pilots, and i think we've got two female -- eileen and another gal that are testing because eileen
has to have a backup, a girl backup. >> and hopefully we'll be seeing more and more. >> absolutely. >> you went on, as you said, you were traveling overseas for lengths of time. you had your career in aviation. tell us something about that, you would, an overview of what you continued to do. >> i kind of went over to -- well, i went over to russia with two goals in mind, to see the paris air show and to meet valentina because she had already gone up in ' 63. and i was in russia in '65. i went on a train from vienna to moscow and i never got to meet her. and i was being sponsored to get to russia to meet her, but the russians didn't -- this was cold war time. they did not want us to meet. they had sent she and her
husband off, they said, to japan. so there i was in russia by myself for one week. that's what my ticket allowed me to be there for. and it was an interesting experience going over on the train. when you get to the border between poland and russia, they stop the train. everybody has to get off for a good hour and nobody knows what's going on. and they tried 0 to give me shots. they took my passport away and it was a little spooky. got everything back. i said, nope, you're not sticking me with any needles. got back onboard and no more knowledgeable why they took us off. but, when i went through -- i was in russia now or in moscow. i got to see a lot of the things that they wanted me to see. the university, the kremlin, the da-da-da-da-da.
didn't dare speak to anybody. nobody would speak to me. but getting back on the train to go back to vienna, when we got to that border crossing, i decide to play sick and stay on the train. i wanted to know what was going on. so of course they came and pulled all the shades down. you stay right there. and when they left, the guards left, i peeked underneath one of the blinds and took a picture. and what they were doing, they had great big forks, and they came and they lifted each train are car up and slid a narrower track underneath them and set it back down so russia had real wide tracks in their country and the rest of europe had narrower tracks and this was one of their ways of protecting russia from any high-speed train going into
their country. >> well, that's interesting. >> yeah. and then, in those days, we didn't know how the russians were landing. it was my second trip over to russia when i really got to meet valentina, and i asked for two interpreters in russian and two interpreters in english because i didn't want -- i wanted to know what was going on here. and we were -- the first tourists ever to be taken into are star city, and this is like the astronaut center of houston would be. tourists were never allowed in there. and on the wall you could see the re-entry which we all as americans thought that the cosmonauts came down in the soyuz and landed with their pair chutes. not so. when the soyuz got into the atmosphere, the cover blew off and the astronaut was ejected out. and they came down in their own
parachute stuff, and the "soyuz" came down in its own parachute rig. so this means they didn't reach all of the goals of making a first, because when you go into the rules in paris are that when you want to make a record-breaking situation, you go up with your vehicle, you come down with your vehicle. and they didn't come down with their vehicle. so this is a first that we knew what kind of shenanigans they were playing. >> interesting. did you get to take a picture of that, wally? >> i sure did it. >> interesting. >> and i got 45 minutes with valentina. my first questions were, how did your parents feel? she had been taken from her parents as a child. the father went to a labor