Pioneer pilot led the way for American women in space

(CBS News) ROANOKE, Texas -- Seventy-five-year-old flight instructor Wally Funk has always been a bit unconventional. She's been around planes since she could walk and earned her pilot's license as a teenager.

Wally Funk took Michelle Miller up for a flying lesson.
Wally Funk took Michelle Miller up for a flying lesson.
CBS News

"There's just so much to do up there!" she says, when asked why she loves the sky. "I'm free. I'm closer to God. I'm closer to the air. I'm closer to the sun!"

Though she is relentlessly upbeat, there is one thing that still gnaws at Wally Funk: the flight she never got to take.

After the original Mercury astronauts were subjected to a grueling set of medical tests, the doctor who designed those tests used private funding to administer the same tests to women.

"X-raying all over the body, every bone, every tooth, sticking water in your ears," Wally remembers. "I had to drink radioactive water."

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The women matched -- and sometimes surpassed -- the results of the men, but not everyone was impressed.

Eileen Collins was the first female to pilot a shuttle.
Eileen Collins was the first female to pilot a shuttle.
CBS News

John Glenn told Congress that women pilots were against our "social order." Vice President Lyndon Johnson wrote, "Let's stop this now" on a memo to NASA.

Asked what she thought about Johnson's message, Wally responds, "Dumb! They didn't understand -- we can do just as good a job as the guys, and this was keeping us out of a program."

"And look what Sally and Eileen and the rest of the girls did," she adds.

Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, and Eileen Collins was the first female to pilot a shuttle. Collins invited the women from that testing program to all of her launches.

Watch: Astronaut mom arrives on International Space Station, below.

"I truly believe because of what they did, the timing was right for me," Collins says.

Wally Funk hasn't given up her dream. She's applied to be a passenger aboard Virgin Galactic's space plane, which could launch in 2014.

"I'm going, that is my quest," she says, adding she hasn't given up. "I love flying, that's my -- that's my job, that's what I love, and I'm not a quitter."

Grounded once for being the wrong gender, Wally Funk believes she still has the right stuff.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.

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