Wally Funk was a member of the Mercury 13, a group of skilled female pilots who were excluded from NASA’s first missions to space. Today, Funk will have a lifelong dream fulfilled as a member of the Blue Origin flight crew.
Funk, whose full name is Mary Wallace Funk, was invited to be a crew member on the New Shepard’s first manned space flight at age 82. Blue Origin, the company founded by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man and Amazon’s CEO in 2000, has been testing flights of its New Shepard rocket for years, according to CNBC. The space flight took place the morning of Tuesday, July 20, 2021.
After the successful flight, Funk emerged from the New Shepard capsule with her arms spread out wide and a smile on her face. Funk told CNN after returning to Earth, “I loved every minute of it. I just wish it had been longer…and could do a lot more rolls and twists and so forth. But I loved it I can hardly wait to go again.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Wally Funk’s Flight to Space Was Called ‘Poetic Justice’ By a Historical Author
Funk was one of 13 women who came to be known as the Mercury 13. The Mercury 13 were skilled pilots that trained to be a part of NASA’s spaceflight program before it began including women. The women were named in contrast to the Mercury 7, a group of seven male astronauts who were selected by NASA for the Mercury program, according to Space.com.
“Wally Funk has really never given up on her dream of spaceflight,” Margaret Weitekamp, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s space history department, told Space.com. “There’s a nice bit of poetic justice in including her on this flight.”
Weitekamp also wrote a book about the Mercury 13. The Mercury 7 were chosen in 1959.
2. Funk Will Be the Oldest Person in Space Aboard the New Shepard at Age 82
While Funk was thwarted from her mission of becoming one of the first female astronauts in space, she will still make history with her flight. The New Shepard’s flight will be the first of its kind when it reaches an altitude of 100 kilometers. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic crossed the 80 kilometer threshold, but has not been able to cross 100 kilometers, according to CNBC.
Funk will also be the oldest person in space, according to Blue Origin’s press statement. She will join the youngest person in space, Oliver Daemon, 18.
“Today, Blue Origin announced Oliver Daemen will be the first paying customer to fly on board New Shepard, marking the beginning of commercial operations for the program,” the July 15 statement said. “He will join Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, and Wally Funk aboard the first human flight on July 20. At 18-years-old and 82-years-young, Oliver Daemen and Wally Funk represent the youngest and oldest astronauts to travel to space.”
3. Wally Funk Never Married & Says She Is ‘Married to Airplanes’
Funk told The Guardian she never married, saying she is “married to airplanes.” She said in the interview that she carried no resentment over being grounded from spaceflight.
In 1995, when Eileen Collins became the first female pilot in space, Funk was at the launch pad crying out, “Go Eileen. Go for all of us,” the article said.
“I wasn’t a bra burner, I’m not a political person,” Funk told The Guardian. “I saw there was an old-boys’ network, but my philosophy has always been to get over it, and move on.”
4. Wally Funk Earned a Series of Firsts for Women in Flight in the 1950s & 1960s
Funk told The Guardian in 2002 she learned to fly at 16 after developing an early fascination in flight.
“I first flew in a plane at eight, and by the age of 10 I had mother drive me out to an airstrip to study the planes parked there,” Funk told The Guardian.
Her childhood hero was Amelia Earheart, she told the publication. When she started flying at 16, she knew it would be a lifelong passion.
“I knew then I wanted to fly for life.”
But when she applied to become a commercial pilot at both TWA and Continental, she told The Guardian she was rejected, saying they couldn’t hire her because “they didn’t have a ladies bathroom at the training facility.”
“For 40 years she has taught flying, both private and commercial, (she has 16,500 hours in the air and has soloed 800 student pilots), in addition, she became the first female investigator of the National Transportation Safety Board,” The Guardian reported.
5. ‘I’m Going for All of Us,’ Funk Told Her Friend Who Congratulated Her on the Fulfillment of Her Lifelong Dream
Sue Nelson, a science journalist who traveled with Funk, called her to congratulate her on her flight, Nelson told Space.com.
“Her aim was to not only to just do it to the best of her ability, every test, but to try to do better than whoever had gone before her,” said Nelson, who traveled with Funk to research her book, “Wally Funk’s Race for Space.” “She just is immensely driven and competitive, which is a sort of the typical early astronaut, test pilot type really — she fits the mold of those early astronauts.”
Nelson recalled the conversation when she called to congratulate her friend in an interview with Space.com. Funk echoed a sentiment from the launch of the first female astronaut on the phone call.
“She said, ‘I’ve waited a lifetime, honey,'” Nelson told Space.com. “And then she said, ‘I’m going up for all of us.'”