We’ve now heard the stories of “Hidden Figures,” the women who helped get the men to the moon. And I’ve told the heroic stories of the WWII nurses and women pilots who stepped up in times of crisis. This is a story of a woman who helped design the suits and train the astronauts in the use of space travel while fully encased in their space gear.
Col Pearl Eleanor Tucker proposed an Aerospace Nursing Course to the Air Force in March of 1964. She was later recognized as the first aerospace nurse.
She assisted NASA in taking care of the Gemini and Apollo astronauts between 1963 and 1968. She was involved in the autopsy of the astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 fire. This is where I first learned of her while watching recent shows on the 50 the anniversary of the moon landing. She was responsible for the removal of the bodies from their space suits. That’s the autopsy.
Pearl’s career prior and after her time with NASA was in her destiny. Beginning in 1946 with a nursing degree, to her Master’s in Education in 1955, she honed her skills before joining the Nurse Corp of the USAF in 1958. From 1970-1974, she was assigned to the Pentagon as Consultant to the Chief, Air Force reserve on Nursing Affairs. She finished her career at Malcolm Grow USAF Medical Center, Andrews AFB, Washington, DC as Headquarters Command Nurse and Chief Nurse of the Department of Nursing. In 1970, she was awarded the “Flight Nurse of the Year Award” by the Aerospace Medical Association. She received numerous military awards, including three Legion of Merit awards.
Now for the story of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, FLAT’s, an elite group of women pilots who underwent astronaut testing and seemed like they might be on track to become astronauts in the early 1960s. The best remembered of these women is probably Jerrie Cobb, a record-setting aviator. Even though Cobb and twelve others did extremely well in the astronaut tests, none of them went to space and the program they were part of was killed, speaking to the unwarranted sexism of the early American space program.
Since no human had flown in space yet when the astronaut fitness tests were designed, the Lovelace doctors required very thorough examinations. These included numerous X-rays and a four-hour eye exam. A specially weighted stationary bicycle pushed the women to exhaustion while testing their respiration. The doctors had the women swallow a rubber tube so that they could test their stomach acids. A tilt table tested circulation. Using an electrical pulse, the physicians tested nerve reflexes in their arms. Ice water was shot into the women’s ears to induce vertigo so that the doctors could time how quickly they recovered. They calculated the candidates’ lean body mass using a nuclear counter in Los Alamos.
In the end, thirteen women passed the same physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed for NASA’s astronaut selection process.
Mary Wallace “”Wally” Funk was one of the women selected to go through astronaut training, and where this story picks up. She was an American aviator and Goodwill Ambassador. She was the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the first female civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the first female Federal Aviation Agency inspector, as well as one of the Mercury 13.
I love her story. She’s never given up on the dream to go to space and at an early age made her desires known. Because she was a “girl” she was not allowed to take the high school courses she wanted, being delegated to “home economics” instead of mechanical engineering, so she dropped out at age 16 to attend Stevens College. This after she had already learned to fly and had become an expert marks-woman.
She was one of many featured during the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing and all those who helped in getting there. It was in hearing her disappointment about this program being scrapped that I then learned that she has paid for her ticket to be among the throngs who have signed up to visit outer space. At 80 years of age, she hasn’t slowed down a bit and her enthusiasm is contagious.
Wally Funk of Roanoke, Texas, is one of the 500 or so civilians from 50 countries around the world who want to visit outer space. She has written a check to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company for the $200,000 ticket; others have put at least $20,000 down. She has twice visited Spaceport America in New Mexico, where they will take off and land, and has met both many of her fellow passengers and the blond billionaire who is their heavenly sponsor. Like the others, she is staying in shape for the medical exam that will precede the space flight.
When Wally completes this mission, I’ll be sure to let you know. Bon Voyage!