Wally Funk’s Race for Space

The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer

Sue Nelson

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.

About the Author

Sue Nelson is an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster. A former BBC TV science correspondent and Radio 4 presenter, Sue currently makes short films on space missions for the European Space Agency and presents the Space Boffins podcast, whose guests have included astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Eileen Collins, Tim Peake and Helen Sharman. Sue’s extensive broadcasting career has taken her from exploding rockets to driving moon buggies on London streets alongside the last man to walk on the Moon, Gene Cernan. Her award-winning 2016 documentary ‘Women with the Right Stuff’, on the history of women in space, was one of BBC World Service’s most-listened-to podcasts. Her other works include How to Clone the Perfect Blonde (longlisted for the Royal Society science book prize).


8 pages


'Wally Funk's story is a textbook study in indefatigable, American, can-do spirit.' The Guardian

'Fascinating and poignant … puts the story of women in space front and centre' Dallas Campbell

'A wonderful, vivid portrait of Wally Funk that explores the crucial part women have played in space exploration.' Libby Jackson, author of A Galaxy of Her Own

'A charming window into the life of an extraordinary woman.' Angela Saini, author of Inferior

'Inspiring ... I am in great admiration of Wally Funk who showed tremendous courage and determination at a time when the world of space flight was dominated by men.' Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency