Wally Funk, a famous aviator who pushed for female inclusion in NASA’s astronaut training programs for decades, will join Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos later this month on a brief flight to the edge of space.
On Thursday, the 82-year-old was confirmed as the third member of Blue Origin’s first crewed New Shepard mission slated to launch July 20. Bezos, his brother Mark, Funk, and the to-be-announced winner of a $28 million auction will make up a four-person crew flying the 60-foot rocket from West Texas to the edge of space.
Funk will occupy the role of “honored guest” on the 11-minute flight and, if everything goes according to plan, fulfill a lifelong dream.
She was the youngest graduate of the privately funded “Woman in Space Program” of the 1960s that put 13 experienced female pilots through the rigors of astronaut training. They became known as the “Mercury 13,” a reference to the “Mercury 7” group of seven men who later flew Mercury, Gemini, and eventually Apollo missions to the moon.
None of the women were selected for full NASA missions.
“They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys,” Funk said in a video posted to Bezos’ Instagram account. “So I got a hold of NASA four times and told them I wanted to become an astronaut, but no one would take me.”
“I never thought that I would get to go up,” she said.
The mission, dubbed NS-16, is critical to Blue’s success. Bezos founded the company in 2000 as a way to fulfill his personal dream of spaceflight, build the infrastructure for space tourism, and help enable a future when millions of people live and work in space.
Named after first American in space Alan Shepard, New Shepard is Blue’s tourism-focused vehicle and flies exclusively from privately owned land in West Texas. The much larger New Glenn, meanwhile, is designed to haul more in the way of humans and cargo from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Named after astronaut John Glenn, that rocket’s first flight is expected before the end of 2022.
From “Mercury 13” to today, Funk has accrued nearly 20,000 flight hours. Her accomplishments include becoming the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
After liftoff on July 20, she will also become the oldest person to travel to space.
“It doesn’t matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it. And I like to do things that nobody has ever done,” Funk said.