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Trailblazing Pilot Wally Funk Will Go to Space 60 Years After Passing Her Astronaut Tests

Wally Funk, the youngest of the ‘Mercury 13,’ will join the inaugural crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule

An undated photograph shows Wally Funk standing with a U.S. Air Force jet. (Courtesy of Blue Origin)
smithsonianmag.com

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday that an honored guest, Wally Funk, will join the inaugural crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard space capsule on July 20.

Funk was a member of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program, better known as the “Mercury 13,” a group of women who underwent the same fitness tests as NASA’s first male astronauts, but they were ultimately not allowed into the space program. That didn’t stop her from blazing a trail for women in aviation: Funk was the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector and the first female National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator, Taylor Telford reports for the Washington Post.

The July 20 launch will make Funk, now 82, the oldest person to go to space.

“I can’t tell people that are watching how fabulous I feel to have been picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip,” says Funk in the video shared on Bezos’ Instagram account announcing the decision, per Mike Brown at Inverse. “I’ll love every second of it.”

Bezos shared publicly in June that he planned to try out his company’s space capsule for himself. The crew also includes his brother Mark, and the anonymous winner of a $28-million-dollar auction for a seat aboard the space capsule.

The entire flight will take about eleven minutes and bring the passengers just to 62-miles of altitude, which is considered the edge of the atmosphere and space, per Derrick Bryson Taylor and Kenneth Chang at the New York Times. The astronauts will experience about four minutes of weightlessness before the capsule returns to Earth.

In the video shared on Instagram, Bezos describes the moment when the capsule lands, and asks Funk, “We open the hatch, and you step outside. What’s the first thing you say?”

“I will say, 'Honey, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me!” says Funk.

Funk’s interest in flight started when she was a child. She built planes from balsa wood when she was seven years old. She had her first flying lesson when she was nine, Funk told Emine Saner at the Guardian in 2019. At Stephens College, she received her flying license, and then she attended Oklahoma State University to study education and join the aviation team, the Flying Aggies.

“As a Flying Aggie, I could do all the maneuvers as well as the boys, if not better,” Funk told the Guardian. She has now logged 19,600 hours of flight time, and she's been a flight instructor for thousands of students, she says in the Instagram video.

Funk volunteered for the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program in 1961 when she was 22 years old, despite the fact that the program was initially recruiting women between 25 and 40 years old. The program was privately funded, meaning it was not run by NASA. William Randolph Lovelace, a doctor who had helped test potential male astronauts in NASA’s Mercury program, launched the private program to find out if women could be astronauts as well.

The women participated individually, and the 13 women who passed the tests outperformed men in many respects. Funk, for instance, spent ten hours and 35 minutes in a sensory-deprivation tank. (John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, spent just three hours in a dimly lit room, where he had a pen and paper, for his sensory deprivation test, Brandon Keim wrote for Wired in 2009.)

The program was cancelled because “on a very basic level, it never occurred to American decision makers to seriously consider a woman astronaut,” writes National Air and Space Museum historian Margaret Weitekamp in Right Stuff, Wrong Sex.

Even before Bezos’ invitation to join the Blue Origin flight as an honored guest, Funk already had her own plan to get to space. In 2010, she purchased a ticket for a flight with another commercial spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, which just got approval for its commercial space license last week.

When the Guardian asked for Funk’s reaction to the cancellation of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program, 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.”

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