Imagine dedicating your entire career to one major goal that others told you was impossible. Now imagine finally achieving that lofty goal at a time in your life when most of those naysayers have quit or retired. Meet Wally Funk, the woman who's living that truth as we speak. At the age of 82, Funk, who has spent six decades trying to reach space, will soon join Amazon founder Jeff Bezos onboard the Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, in the world's first unpiloted civilian space flight. According to NPR, she's on track to break John Glenn's record as the oldest person to reach space.
"No one has waited longer," Bezos himself wrote in a July 1 Instagram post announcing Funk's role as his honored guest for the flight. "In 1961, Wally Funk was at the top of her class as part of the 'Mercury 13' Woman in Space Program. Despite completing their training, the program was cancelled, and none of the thirteen flew. It's time. Welcome to the crew, Wally. We're excited to have you fly with us on July 20th as our honored guest."
According to Sir Brian Burridge FRAeS, Chief Executive of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Funk's triumphant achievement is long overdue. "Wally Funk's upcoming space flight is the culmination of an extraordinary career," he says in an email interview. "With Virgin Galactic's recent flight and Blue Origin's upcoming one, we are truly entering a new era of space flight. But this new era is built on the dreams and vision of people like Wally Funk herself and who were true pioneers in space flight, and in her case, a pioneer for women in particular. We at the Royal Aeronautical Society celebrate all those who have dedicated themselves to space exploration and the advancement of human knowledge of space. We wish her well on her amazing adventure."
An Obsession With Flying Since Childhood
Born on Feb. 1, 1939, in New Mexico, Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk grew up in the town of Taos, where her parents owned and operated a chain of shops. She took an interest in hobbies that were atypical for young girls of the era — think horseback riding and marksmanship competitions — and developed a deep interest in flying early on. At 7 years old, she started making model planes from balsa wood. Looking back at her childhood, Funk has said that her parents' encouragement of her outdoor adventuring inspired her to reach for the stars.
"I did everything that people didn't expect a girl to do," she told The Guardian in 2019. "There was nothing I couldn't do."
At age 9, Funk had her first flying lesson, but she didn't fly again for several years. When she was 16, she enrolled at Stephens College in Missouri and earned her flying license and later studied education at Oklahoma State University, a school known for its aviation team, the Flying Aggies. In 1960, Funk became the first female flight instructor at her training school.
Funk then came across an article about a space program for women developed by William Randolph Lovelace, a doctor who had worked on NASA's mission to put a man into orbit around Earth, known as Project Mercury. Lovelace was launching a privately funded program to investigate women's potential roles in the space program and Funk immediately reached out. She was only 22 at the time — still several years below the program's minimum age requirement of 25 — but Lovelace invited her to join.
The regimen Funk had signed on for wasn't exactly easy. "The first day, they said: 'Come in, don't drink, don't eat,'" she told The Guardian. "The first thing they do is temperature, take all the blood tests they can, and then I was put in a chair, strapped in, and they inject [ice-cold] water into my ear." While the other woman undergoing the vertigo test dropped out of the program within hours, Funk stayed put. "I took it. I can take anything. You can whip me and it won't bother me." She also says she was poked and prodded with needles and tubes, instructed to float in a sensory deprivation tank, and underwent numerous X-rays and a brain scan.
When all was said and done, Funk joined 12 other women to form a group now known as the Mercury 13. But despite the rigorous and time-consuming tests, Lovelace was forced to pull the plug on the program because the government "wouldn't allow him to use military equipment for testing women when NASA had no intention of sending them to space, or even considering women as astronaut candidates at the time," according to Space.com. In a congressional subcommittee meeting, astronaut John Glenn, who testified against the group, said that including women in the space program "may be undesirable." The Mercury 13 program was canceled.
But Funk wasn't deterred from her dreams. As she told The Guardian, disappointment isn't a feeling she's too familiar with. "I don't have that kind of a life," she said. "I'm a positive person. Things were cancelled? So what? Wally's going on. Why are people so negative? I'm not a quitter."
First Female FAA Investigator
And so, Funk continued to seek out tests to prove her prowess. She exceeded cosmonaut tests in Russia ("I beat all the guys," she told The Guardian) and excelled at challenges throughout the U.S. But despite her repeated attempts to join one of NASA's training programs, she was continually rejected because of her lack of an engineering degree. Funk continued working as a flight instructor and eventually became the first female investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), investigating plane crashes.
"I never let anything stop me," Funk told NPR. "I know that my body and my mind can take anything that any space outfit wants to give me — high altitude chamber test, which is fine; centrifuge test, which I know I can do five and six G's. These things are easy for me."
Funk may not have made it into a NASA training program over the course of her impressive career — in addition to being the first woman to be an inspector for the FAA, she served as the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has logged 19,600 flight hours across her career, and taught about 3,000 people to fly — but at age 82, she's finally seeing her dream come true.
"Throughout her entire career, Wally consistently broke barriers in the aerospace industry," says Women in Aerospace chair, Dr. Rebecca Keiser, in an email interview. "What is incredible is that 60 years following Wally's first attempt to become an astronaut, she has finally prevailed, proving that it is never too late for women to embark on opportunities once denied to them and continue to break down barriers towards gender equity across all fields."
On July 20, Funk will join Bezos, his brother, Mark, and 18-year-old recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen on the first ever crewed flight of Blue Origin's suborbital space tourism rocket, New Shepard.
"Including Wally Funk on the flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard is an inspired choice," says Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, chair of the National Air and Space Museum's space history department, in an email interview. "Funk's participation in Lovelace's privately-funded but very public women's astronaut fitness testing in the early 1960s — at a time when American women were otherwise denied an equal role in economic, political, and cultural life — sparked her enduring passion for spaceflight. When she is finally able to live that dream, it will be a tribute to her grit, talent and the power of persistence."