Wally Funk’s Race for Space

The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer

Sue Nelson


‘Wally Funk’s character leaps off the page …  fantastic and so inspirational.’ Naga Munchetty, BBC Breakfast


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, producer and broadcaster. A former BBC TV science correspondent and Radio 4 presenter, Sue makes short films on space missions for the European Space Agency and co-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 rocket launches in South America to driving a lunar buggy in London alongside Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon. Her 2016 documentary ‘Women with the Right Stuff’, on the history of women in space, won a New York Festival International Radio Program Award.


8 pages


‘An extraordinary, quirky book … A global Thelma and Louise-style adventure … It’s a great story, and it throws fascinating light on the story of female space travel.’ Daily Mail Book of the Week

'Fascinating story ... Wally Funk's character leaps off the page ... she is fantastic and so inspirational. ... if you want to see someone with spunk and determination, that is the book to read.' Naga Munchetty, BBC Breakfast

‘The narrative flows wonderfully under Nelson’s light and witty style … This is a truly inspiring book about friendship, women’s place in the history of aviation and spac, and the cost of a dream.’ Niamh Shaw, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, *****

'[This] is not only the story of a historic space mission that never happened, but a story of frustration, friendship and feminism. … After the success of Hidden Figures, Wally Funk’s Race for Space feels immensely important and timely – like the world is finally waking up to women’s contributions to science and engineering.' Physics World

'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