July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

The news arrived Sept. 12, 1961, in a Western Union telegram: “Regret to advise arrangements at Pensacola canceled. Probably will not be possible to carry out this part of the program.” Those two lines ended the dream of space flight for 13 women, all top pilots who had been recruited for astronaut testing under the Mercury program. Now they were being told they had the right stuff but were the wrong sex. “The world wasn’t ready,” says Martha Ackmann, author of The Mercury 13, which joins Stephanie Nolen’s Promised the Moon this summer in honoring these pioneers. From early on, each woman “was determined she was going to fly,” says Nolen. As the following stories make clear, the passion hasn’t faded.

Wally Funk

Still aiming for orbit

Wally Funk was a flight instructor at Fort Sill Army base in Oklahoma when she read a story in Life magazine about Dr. Randolph Lovelace II, the head of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee, who was testing women pilots as astronauts. “I wrote a letter to him and said, ‘I want to be a pioneer in space—do I have a chance?’ ” recalls Funk, then 21. “And he gave me one.”

Told to keep details of the “top-secret girl-astronaut program” to herself, the Taos, N. Mex., native drove to Albuquerque, where she tried to prove she was “the best of the best, so I could go into space.” That meant tests of fitness and endurance like riding a stationary bike with her nose clamped so she could breathe only through her mouth and other “pretty barbaric things,” she says. “I did whatever they asked without asking questions.”

Feeling “disappointed but not discouraged” after the program was canceled. Funk settled in the Dallas suburbs, where today she’s an instructor at the Northwest Regional Flight School. But she still harbors dreams of heading into space; in fact last year, Interorbital Systems—a space-tourism company that builds its own rockets—tapped Funk, 64, to fly its first launch. The project is on hold due to lack of funding, but Funk remains undaunted. “I know,” she says, “that it will happen.”

Jerrie Cobb

The toughest of the bunch

By 1959 Jerrie Cobb was the country’s top female commercial flyer, having been named Woman of the Year in Aviation by the Women’s National Aeronautic Association. So when NASA wanted to see if a woman could pass the same space simulations recently given to male Air Force pilots, Cobb got the first call. “I couldn’t say yes fast enough,” she says.

Of the Mercury 13, Cobb, now 72, came closest to becoming an astronaut, posting stellar results whether having ice water poured in her ear (to induce vertigo, which might result from spinning in a space capsule) or being submerged in a water-filled isolation tank for almost 10 hours. “I took it as a nice, long rest,” she says. Cobb later joined Janey Hart in testifying before Congress about sending women into space, to no avail, and eventually she settled in South America’s Amazon jungle, where for the past four decades she has flown supplies to remote indigenous areas. “I have a whole other family down there,” she says. “We’ll go out on a clear night and look up at the stars.”

Janey Hart

She didn’t take defeat quietly

Janey Hart was 40 and the mother of eight kids, the youngest just 3, when she volunteered for the Mercury 13 program. “I knew my husband could hold down the fort,” she says. “Why shouldn’t I go?”

Hart displayed the same fearless resolve while undergoing the requisite testing. “There wasn’t one cell in our body that wasn’t checked out,” she says. “We did one test after another with no food—I thought I was going to starve to death!”

After the Mercury 13 program shut down, Hart—who was married to Phil Hart, a liberal Democrat who represented Michigan in the U.S. Senate for 18 years before his 1976 death—fired off an outraged letter to Congress. The House Space Committee then convened hearings to look into the matter. “It is inconceivable to me,” Hart told the panel, “that the world of outer space should be restricted to men only like some stag club.”

Although her dreams of space travel never materialized, Hart, 81, has kept up her intrepid ways. Just last month she sailed her 38-ft. sailboat more than 1,000 miles from her home in the Washington, D.C., area to the Virgin Islands. “What else would I do?” she says. “Bother my children?”

Irene Leverton

In love with the wild blue yonder

In 1961, Irene Leverton was a pilot for a Santa Monica charter company when she got a call inviting her to come in for astronaut testing. The idea of space travel didn’t interest her—but getting to fly new aircraft did, “because, you see,” she says, “the more challenges you have, the better you get. And I still had this big head that made me think I could do anything.”

Including the grueling space simulations, during which “this psychiatrist-type woman would sit real near to see how much you were suffering,” Leverton says. Having her elbow submerged in ice water for as long as she could stand it didn’t faze Leverton, nor did lying enclosed “in a metal, cavelike thing” with only a panic button to release her. The numerous blood draws, however, proved unnerving. “I’ve always been sensitive—you stick a needle in me and my head hits the roof,” she says. But Leverton wouldn’t allow herself to give up. “The researchers kept telling us that the women complained a lot less—naturally, because we get stepped on all the time.”

Fascinated by flight since childhood, when her father took her to air shows near their Chicago home, Leverton, now 76, spent most of her career as a charter pilot and now works as a flight instructor and pilot examiner at Arizona’s Prescott Airport. Never married (“I saw a couple of other gals do it, and within a year they were out of aviation”), Leverton lives in a Chino Valley, Ariz., trailer home where the shelves overflow with her aviation memorabilia. By the door a box containing Leverton’s most valuable possession—60 years’ worth of flight logs recording her more than 25,000 flight hours—stands ready. “In case there’s a fire,” she says, “that box goes with me.”

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