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In 1961, Wally Funk was among the Mercury 13, the first group of American pilots to pass the Woman in Space programme. Wally sailed through a series of rigorous physical and mental tests, with one of her scores beating all the male Mercury 7 astronauts’, including John Glenn’s, the first American in orbit. But just one week before the final phase of training, the programme In 1961, Wally Funk was among the Mercury 13, the first group of American pilots to pass the Woman in Space programme. Wally sailed through a series of rigorous physical and mental tests, with one of her scores beating all the male Mercury 7 astronauts’, including John Glenn’s, the first American in orbit. But just one week before the final phase of training, the programme was abruptly cancelled. A combination of politics and prejudice meant that none of the women ever flew into space. Undeterred, Wally went on to become America’s first female aviation safety inspector, though her dream of being an astronaut never dimmed. In this offbeat odyssey, journalist and fellow space buff Sue Nelson joins Wally, now approaching her eightieth birthday, as she races to make her own giant leap, before it’s too late. Covering their travels across the United States and Europe – taking in NASA’s mission control in Houston, the European Space Agency’s HQ in Paris and Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Wally’s ride into space awaits – this is a uniquely intimate and entertaining portrait of a true aviation trailblazer.


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In 1961, Wally Funk was among the Mercury 13, the first group of American pilots to pass the Woman in Space programme. Wally sailed through a series of rigorous physical and mental tests, with one of her scores beating all the male Mercury 7 astronauts’, including John Glenn’s, the first American in orbit. But just one week before the final phase of training, the programme In 1961, Wally Funk was among the Mercury 13, the first group of American pilots to pass the Woman in Space programme. Wally sailed through a series of rigorous physical and mental tests, with one of her scores beating all the male Mercury 7 astronauts’, including John Glenn’s, the first American in orbit. But just one week before the final phase of training, the programme was abruptly cancelled. A combination of politics and prejudice meant that none of the women ever flew into space. Undeterred, Wally went on to become America’s first female aviation safety inspector, though her dream of being an astronaut never dimmed. In this offbeat odyssey, journalist and fellow space buff Sue Nelson joins Wally, now approaching her eightieth birthday, as she races to make her own giant leap, before it’s too late. Covering their travels across the United States and Europe – taking in NASA’s mission control in Houston, the European Space Agency’s HQ in Paris and Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Wally’s ride into space awaits – this is a uniquely intimate and entertaining portrait of a true aviation trailblazer.

30 review for Wally Funk’s Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer

  1. 5 out of 5

    Imi

    This is less a biography of Wally Funk, one of the women who if not for sexism could have landed on the Moon in the 1960s, and more of a fun space-themed road-trip, where journalist Sue Nelson and Wally become best of friends, and travel the world interviewing spacey people. While still telling an important lesser known story of the space race, it is simply just a whole lot of fun, and written in such a lovely informal style. I raced through this! I hope you get into space one day, dear Wally.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jaz

    Despite considering myself a bit of a space nerd, I didn't know about the Mercury 13 - the women who completed the same gruelling tasks as the male astronaut candidates for the Mercury space programme. Despite a high rate of success, the programme was cancelled - sexist attitudes were no less prevalent at NASA than in any other area of American life - and the women were told to forget any dreams of space travel. One of the women - the now 81 year old Wally Funk -never gave up her dream, and is st Despite considering myself a bit of a space nerd, I didn't know about the Mercury 13 - the women who completed the same gruelling tasks as the male astronaut candidates for the Mercury space programme. Despite a high rate of success, the programme was cancelled - sexist attitudes were no less prevalent at NASA than in any other area of American life - and the women were told to forget any dreams of space travel. One of the women - the now 81 year old Wally Funk -never gave up her dream, and is still tryng to get into space. Wally is a woman who never takes no for an answer, and has packed several lifetimes into her one. By the end of the book I guarantee that, like me, you will be willing her to realise her dream of heading into space on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Bowen

    Superb! This is a story I never knew anything about, the Mercury 13, 13 women who were chosen to train as America’s first women NASA astronauts in 1960s. But unfortunately the programme got scrapped due to politics and sexism, this is the story of the youngest to qualify, Wally Funk. Wally hasn’t given up her hope of getting into space, she could have been quite bitter about it, but she embraces life fully and continues to learn and try and improve, even if she is a pensioner. Wally’s enthusiasm Superb! This is a story I never knew anything about, the Mercury 13, 13 women who were chosen to train as America’s first women NASA astronauts in 1960s. But unfortunately the programme got scrapped due to politics and sexism, this is the story of the youngest to qualify, Wally Funk. Wally hasn’t given up her hope of getting into space, she could have been quite bitter about it, but she embraces life fully and continues to learn and try and improve, even if she is a pensioner. Wally’s enthusiasm for life is infectious, and I was smiling so much reading this book, although at times it was also poignant. Whilst this is fundamentally a book about space, I think anyone could pick this book up and be inspired by reading Wally’s story.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Billy

    It was OK - I feel like it could have been executed better. The title was misleading - Nelson and Funk basically travel around interviewing people and parts of each chapter incorporate bits of Funk's life, how she became interested in space, and aviation. At times, her personality was too "overbearing" for my quiet self, at others, it was quite nice - her passion is quite catchy, I will admit. It is remarkable how a 78-year-old woman can still have so much stamina, but I think this would have be It was OK - I feel like it could have been executed better. The title was misleading - Nelson and Funk basically travel around interviewing people and parts of each chapter incorporate bits of Funk's life, how she became interested in space, and aviation. At times, her personality was too "overbearing" for my quiet self, at others, it was quite nice - her passion is quite catchy, I will admit. It is remarkable how a 78-year-old woman can still have so much stamina, but I think this would have been better as a biography of Funk.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sandi

    There is not much about women in the Space race. So it's nice to read about one and the pioneer spirit There is not much about women in the Space race. So it's nice to read about one and the pioneer spirit

  6. 5 out of 5

    lottie bromwich

    Inspiring and insightful.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Eleanor

    If there were a prize for titles so bad they're good, this would surely win. It happens to really be the name of the woman about whom the book is written: Mary Wallace Funk, now in her eighties, has gone by "Wally" for most of her life. Her distinction is that she is one of the highest-achieving members of the Mercury Thirteen, a group of women who were selected for, and underwent, astronaut training in the same way as the more famous (and more male) Mercury Seven. The funding for the women's pr If there were a prize for titles so bad they're good, this would surely win. It happens to really be the name of the woman about whom the book is written: Mary Wallace Funk, now in her eighties, has gone by "Wally" for most of her life. Her distinction is that she is one of the highest-achieving members of the Mercury Thirteen, a group of women who were selected for, and underwent, astronaut training in the same way as the more famous (and more male) Mercury Seven. The funding for the women's program was cut, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and none of those who trained ever made it into space. Funk was an outstanding aviator and has spent much of her life pursuing her dream of being in orbit; she's got Virgin Galactic tickets, though she fears she'll die before she can use them. The book itself is an inspirational and infuriating reminder that women in science have always been both pioneering and ignored. Funk is a strange person, with characteristics that seem almost pathological (loud, repetitive speech; constant questions; absolutely no shame about the body, but very awkward when conversation turns to sex and relationships). Sue Nelson is a radio journalist, and the book often reads more conversationally than elegantly; it's a curious mix of travelogue and biography that doesn't always sit well together. It's hella informative, though.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Barry Davidoff

    Wally Funk's Race for Space is based on the legend of the Mercury 13. The Mercury 13 were a group of 13 women pilots who underwent a series of unofficial medical tests similar to those given the original Mercury male astronauts. The tests were completely unofficial and not in anyway part of any program to even consider women as astronauts. The tests were conducted at the Lovelace Clinic and were not conducted under any agreement with NASA or any branch of the US government. Several women pilots c Wally Funk's Race for Space is based on the legend of the Mercury 13. The Mercury 13 were a group of 13 women pilots who underwent a series of unofficial medical tests similar to those given the original Mercury male astronauts. The tests were completely unofficial and not in anyway part of any program to even consider women as astronauts. The tests were conducted at the Lovelace Clinic and were not conducted under any agreement with NASA or any branch of the US government. Several women pilots completed extensive medical tests but were never in anyway sanctioned as candidates for the space program. These women were a mere footnote until the 1990's when several authors to promote women in space created the Mercury 13 legend. The tests devised by Randy Lovelace for the first group of male astronauts were not useful in the selection process and were discarded by NASA in selecting later astronauts. Schirra, one of the original Mercury astronauts in his autobiography, Schurra's Space called Loveless sadistic and the medical tests not realistic in astronaut selection. The results of the tests on the women pilots were never published. Randy Lovelace certainly sexually harassed the women pilots. The tests invaded every part of their bodies supposedly as a medical exam. In the isolation test three of the women pilots including Wally Funk were placed in a large tank filled with water at neutral bouyancy so that they would float. The room was darkened and sound proofed. The women were totally nude as they floated ad Wally Funk set a record at floating nude for over 10 hours while Jerry Cobb floated nude for 9 hours. They were observed during the entire time by Randy Lovelace and his male assistants. The male astronauts isolation test was just placing them in a darkened room. The pyscho-sexual nature of Lovelace's predatory practices of placing totally nude women in a flotation tank are obvious. Sue Nelson goes along with the legend of the Mercury 13. She is a BBC journalist and most of the book is a series of meetings with Wally Funk 35-50 years after the tests. Nelson also met with other women who are in the space program Nelson never examined the original records of the Lovelace clinic or reveal that the use of the tests was discarded by NASA. The book is mostly a series of Wally Funk stories and Wally comes across as a delightful person. Nelson never questions the true status of the Mercury 13 as women who never were part of a governmental space program. in her "Sources and Further reading Nelson admits to not thoroughly researching sources on the Mercury 13. She states that she "became worried that their tales about Wally would influence my own experience of her so I deliberately put them on hold until after writing for this book was finished." Judging from the number of errors, omissions and inconsistencies throughout the book, Nelson displays a cavalier attitude towards facts. In the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" the conclusion is that "When fact becomes legend, print the legend" Sue Nelson chose to print the legend of Wally Funk.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Karen Mace

    This was book 6 of my 20 Books of Summer 2020. What a blooming amazing woman Wally Funk is!! Even at the age of 80 she's fighting hard to achieve her dream of going into Space. And in this book we get to hear all about her amazing career and the astonishingly poor treatment that women were receiving in the 1960's, especially in the world of the US space race when a group of 13 female pilots were put through the rigorous, and brutal, testing process as part of Mercury 13 only to have the funding c This was book 6 of my 20 Books of Summer 2020. What a blooming amazing woman Wally Funk is!! Even at the age of 80 she's fighting hard to achieve her dream of going into Space. And in this book we get to hear all about her amazing career and the astonishingly poor treatment that women were receiving in the 1960's, especially in the world of the US space race when a group of 13 female pilots were put through the rigorous, and brutal, testing process as part of Mercury 13 only to have the funding cut just before the mission. No reason was ever given, and this was such a huge blow to Wally and the other women. What also comes across throughout this book is the touching friendship between the author, Sue Nelson, and Wally as they travel together visiting a variety of places connecting to the world of Space. They often drive each other nuts, but for the most part they are inspired and enthused by one another and share such a lovely bond as they discover new aspects to the history and the future of Space travel. This book is so illuminating into the derisive attitudes shown towards the women in the 1960's and onwards, and even when Wally outshines her male rivals at some of the tests, there are still doubts as to whether women should even be trying out for a place on the next space shuttle. Through this book we get to hear about the amazing achievements she accomplished through her life and even at 80 she's hungry for more! She's even bought herself a ticket to be a space tourist on the Virgin Galactic Space which is hoping to be the first commercial space flight - if it ever goes ahead! Wally is a formidable woman with such an inspiring tale to tell and I'm very grateful for Sue Nelson for sharing it with us. She's the kind of woman we should be teaching all young girls to look up to and aspire to be. Her energy and determination to prove people wrong is infectious and I just loved spending time in the company of her thanks to this book! I just hope she gets to achieve her dream!!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jen K

    In 1959, after Dr. Lovelace conducted the physical and psychological screening tests to choose the first astronauts, Mercury 7 (all male), for the US, through private funding, he administered the same tests to women pilots selecting the Mercury 13. The women did as well as the men or better. One of those woman was Wally Funk. Through the author's own passion for space and as a BBC producer, Nelson met Wally Funk first for an interview and then later produced a longer series about women in the sp In 1959, after Dr. Lovelace conducted the physical and psychological screening tests to choose the first astronauts, Mercury 7 (all male), for the US, through private funding, he administered the same tests to women pilots selecting the Mercury 13. The women did as well as the men or better. One of those woman was Wally Funk. Through the author's own passion for space and as a BBC producer, Nelson met Wally Funk first for an interview and then later produced a longer series about women in the space program with Wally as her presenter. This book regales their adventure traveling so several monuments to space- Houston, Cape Canaveral, Roswell, the European Space Agency, and about their interviews with the women working as astronauts, physicians and flight directors. Interspersed throughout their travels is Wally's own life history from space candidate and pilot to an air safety investigator. She is truly a spunky and fascinating lady. I really enjoyed the history of women in space which I really hadn't known much beyond Christa McAuliffe and Sally Ride. It is so heart breaking that the women of Mercury 13 rose to every challenge they faced and then were summarily dismissed as women and there is still so much sexism in regard to female astronauts. While it clear that Nelson and Funk developed a friendship, I found Nelson's constant put downs of Funk's quirks to be off-putting. She seemed to relish catching Wally in any exaggeration and the constant slights were unnecessary. There could certainly be a different way to show Funk's personality.

  11. 5 out of 5

    BookTrib.com

    They had the right stuff. But they were the wrong sex. That would be an appropriate epitaph for the women of the Mercury 13, or Woman in Space, program, a privately funded project in the early 1960s to test women pilots for astronaut fitness. The women never made it into space – the program was abruptly canceled — but they are regarded as trailblazers in the annals of aviation. One member of the group, the energetic Wally Funk, was put through 87 rigorous tests over 5-1/2 days to determine whether They had the right stuff. But they were the wrong sex. That would be an appropriate epitaph for the women of the Mercury 13, or Woman in Space, program, a privately funded project in the early 1960s to test women pilots for astronaut fitness. The women never made it into space – the program was abruptly canceled — but they are regarded as trailblazers in the annals of aviation. One member of the group, the energetic Wally Funk, was put through 87 rigorous tests over 5-1/2 days to determine whether she in fact had the right stuff. Her scores surpassed many of the men in the famous Mercury 7 program, including one guy named John Glenn. Her story is documented in the colorful Wally Funk’s Race for Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer (Chicago Review Press) by Sue Nelson. Nelson is the perfect chronicler: She is a multi-award-winning British science journalist specializing in space. She makes radio documentaries for the BBC, short films for scientific organizations and the European Space Agency, and co-presents the monthly Space Boffins podcast. She has reported on a number of space missions over the years. More recently, she achieved a personal ambition by floating like an astronaut onboard a Zero G flight. The rest of the review: https://booktrib.com/2019/03/wally-fu...

  12. 4 out of 5

    David

    The author clearly likes her subject. She admits that Wally has become her friend, and that comes through. So is this book hagiography? I don't think so, but I know I was questioning that along the way. Wally Funk achieved a lot over her career, but have some of her claims morphed later in life, like the author keep bringing up about Wally's memory of how much warning she had to report to the Lovelace clinic. I know I wondered if Wally was ADHD, or something. Or is it just hard to have pursued s The author clearly likes her subject. She admits that Wally has become her friend, and that comes through. So is this book hagiography? I don't think so, but I know I was questioning that along the way. Wally Funk achieved a lot over her career, but have some of her claims morphed later in life, like the author keep bringing up about Wally's memory of how much warning she had to report to the Lovelace clinic. I know I wondered if Wally was ADHD, or something. Or is it just hard to have pursued something for so long, and given the problems with the start of space tourism, that she will never get the chance to go in to space, even as a sub-orbital tourist. I almost wanted an appendix which would spell out all Wally's awards and achievements, just to get the timeline down. In some ways, the book reminds me of the authors descriptions of Wally's storytelling, that it felt non-linear. Still, I enjoyed the book. No idea if she could have been an Apollo commander, as we lost all kinds of astronauts along the way. Some left before getting a flight, and a number died in plane crashed, and a handful have died on Missions (or testing for a Mission as in the Apollo 1 fire.) Still worth reading for sure. I was surprised at growing the like the subject.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nick Davies

    A very readable tale - part biography and part travelogue - of Wally Funk, aviatrix and one of the thirteen female 'prospective astronauts' who in the 1960s was part of the Mercury programme, a group of women who passed all the same NASA tests as the men who became America's first astronauts - only for the programme to put an American woman in space to be cancelled. This insight in to the history of the space race, and other biographical aspects of Funk's career as a pilot and air accident inves A very readable tale - part biography and part travelogue - of Wally Funk, aviatrix and one of the thirteen female 'prospective astronauts' who in the 1960s was part of the Mercury programme, a group of women who passed all the same NASA tests as the men who became America's first astronauts - only for the programme to put an American woman in space to be cancelled. This insight in to the history of the space race, and other biographical aspects of Funk's career as a pilot and air accident investigation lead, I found very interesting. The parts of the book where the author details her travels with the subject, and the romantic nature of 'will she become a space tourist and finally have her dreams come true' I found less compelling, for all that I can see this gave the book a human interest angle which would appeal to many. Nevertheless, it was well-written, made for a nice little read, and had plenty of content which'll stimulate further research on my part.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Will Plunkett

    Reading, as we get older, is harder to learn about things and people we didn't know ANYTHING about. As someone who followed "space stuff" as much as possible, I'm ashamed to admit I'd never even heard of the Mercury 13 before. Testing pilots for astronaut qualifications; sure. But women who not only tested but did well enough to be considered for inclusion; nope. The author comes off a bit of a wet blanket, trying to get Wally to act easier for Nelson to complete her work (interviews, radio reco Reading, as we get older, is harder to learn about things and people we didn't know ANYTHING about. As someone who followed "space stuff" as much as possible, I'm ashamed to admit I'd never even heard of the Mercury 13 before. Testing pilots for astronaut qualifications; sure. But women who not only tested but did well enough to be considered for inclusion; nope. The author comes off a bit of a wet blanket, trying to get Wally to act easier for Nelson to complete her work (interviews, radio recordings, travels, etc.), since Wally's questions and energy and wanderings and questions and driving and quirks can be overwhelming. Funny, insightful; even a nice travel log as the pair head to various space and flight locations.

  15. 5 out of 5

    P.

    I really hope Wally gets to go up in SpaceShip Two. Sometimes Nelson goes too much into their personal interactions, which drags the book a little, even though it's relatively short. Otherwise a relaxed longform profile of one of the most accomplished people you might learn about along with a broad view of world space exploration from the 60s up until now. I really hope Wally gets to go up in SpaceShip Two. Sometimes Nelson goes too much into their personal interactions, which drags the book a little, even though it's relatively short. Otherwise a relaxed longform profile of one of the most accomplished people you might learn about along with a broad view of world space exploration from the 60s up until now.

  16. 4 out of 5

    J.F. Duncan

    Bought it this morning, had finished it by this evening: a really interesting book told in an unusual way- a road trip with a difference, providing a fascinating introduction to the 'Mercury 13' and the abandoned 'Women in Space' programme, told in a wonderfully informal style. Inspirational stuff. I now need to know more...! Bought it this morning, had finished it by this evening: a really interesting book told in an unusual way- a road trip with a difference, providing a fascinating introduction to the 'Mercury 13' and the abandoned 'Women in Space' programme, told in a wonderfully informal style. Inspirational stuff. I now need to know more...!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Nimmo

    A fabulous story of a friendship Wally Funk comes to life in this book, as a force of nature - delightful, infuriating, almost certainly exhausting - you can’t help but hope she lives her dream and makes it to space.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Simon Treen

    An unusual take on a biography but nonetheless engaging and well paced. Wally is a remarkable person and the book does a great job of conveying her energy and personality. I really hope that Wally gets her opportunity to become an astronaut.

  19. 5 out of 5

    NonFiction 24/7

    This could have been a good book but it couldn't make up it's mind what it wanted to be. Is it a story about the Mercury 13, a friendship between Wally and the author, making a radio show, or a history book. This could have been a good book but it couldn't make up it's mind what it wanted to be. Is it a story about the Mercury 13, a friendship between Wally and the author, making a radio show, or a history book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Molly

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. None of them go to space and instead is full of interviews and random conversations that I couldn’t care less about. Trust me, I would not pick up this book for even someone I hate; don’t put yourself through that. If I could, I’d rate it ZERO STARS.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Boo

    Fantastic book. I loved every minute

  22. 4 out of 5

    Becs

    Wonderful and very interesting read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Glenn Fuller

    Interesting humorous memoir/road trip/biography.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Sparks

    #5 of 2020.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Runningrara

    The life story of a female spaceflight pioneer and her lifelong quest to get up into orbit. Fascinating.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Supe

    I love this book and Wally SO much!

  27. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    This is a great read. Wally is a character, full of enthusiasm. Sue Nelson from the BBC doesn't seem the type but is a great foil. This is a great read. Wally is a character, full of enthusiasm. Sue Nelson from the BBC doesn't seem the type but is a great foil.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lucia

    Amazing

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Evans

    I listened to the audiobook version of this and it was really interesting. I've already recommended it to a few people. I listened to the audiobook version of this and it was really interesting. I've already recommended it to a few people.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Latkins

    This is the remarkable story of a remarkable woman. Wally Funk is one in million, a woman who was one of the 'Mercury 13' who underwent tests to become an astronaut in the early 1960s. The programme was abruptly cancelled, and Wally never made it into space, but she hasn't given up, and hopes to still make it in the future, despite now being in her late 70s. The book blends biography, history, science and a travelogue to give us the story of Wally's life, as well as the history of female astrona This is the remarkable story of a remarkable woman. Wally Funk is one in million, a woman who was one of the 'Mercury 13' who underwent tests to become an astronaut in the early 1960s. The programme was abruptly cancelled, and Wally never made it into space, but she hasn't given up, and hopes to still make it in the future, despite now being in her late 70s. The book blends biography, history, science and a travelogue to give us the story of Wally's life, as well as the history of female astronauts and cosmonauts and the sexism they've long had to battle against. A really interesting, uplifting book.

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