This week an 82-year-old woman made history as the oldest person to travel to space.
But Wally Funk isn’t just any octogenarian. She is someone who has trained for this day for most of her adult life. Once the New Shepard returned to Earth safely after its brief sojourn into space, Funk’s energy was infectious.
After the mission, she declared, “I want to go again, fast!” (watch above) Bezos took Funk as an “honored guest,” saying “We can confirm that Wally, once again, in training outperformed the men on the mission, 100%.”
What Bezos meant when he said “once again” was in reference to NASA not allowing Funk to go into space 60 years ago.
CNN reports, “Funk originally volunteered as a member of the “Mercury 13” program, otherwise known as the “Women in Space Program,” in February of 1961, which was a privately-funded effort intended to begin training women to fly in NASA’s earliest space programs.”
Wally Funk was one of 13 women who went through a rigorous astronaut-training program in the 1960s. Like the others, she was ultimately denied the opportunity because of her gender.
She will finally get her trip to space today, in Jeff Bezos’ rocket. https://t.co/GeUsx9zTwM
— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 20, 2021
As the New York Times writes, Funk occupies a rare spot in America’s history of space exploration.
Ms. Funk is one of the few people who has directly participated in both eras of human spaceflight so far — the one that started as an urgent race between rival nations, and the one that we are now transitioning into, in which private companies and the billionaires who finance them are in fierce competition for customers, comeuppance and contracts. That she was ultimately excluded from the first phase because she is a woman, and will now be included in the next one, also highlights difficult questions of whom space is for.
Ms. Funk and 12 other women went through testing as part of the Woman in Space Program. The range of tests included having ice water pumped into their ears to induce vertigo and being placed inside a sensory deprivation tank. Ms. Funk was in the tank for over 10 hours when the researchers finally brought her out because they wanted to go home. She had fallen asleep.
Across the board, the women who passed that initial round of testing did as well or better than their male counterparts, and of that group, Ms. Funk excelled. But NASA shut down the Women in Space program as the Cold War escalated. The agency wouldn’t send a woman into space until 1983. The story of the FLATs: First Lady Astronaut Trainees, as the women referred to each other, was not widely known until recently. But women and nonbinary people working in the field of space exploration knew about it.
“Seeing her finally get to go into space decades after proving that she was not only capable, but perhaps more capable than the men she was essentially up against during the Mercury program is so incredible,” Tanya Harrison, a planetary scientist and director of science strategy at Planet Labs, told the New York Times.
Today, six decades after she thought her chances of soaring into space were over, Funk was able to full the inscription on a trophy she received in college as the most outstanding pilot in her class. It read:
“Mark my words, if ever a woman flies into space, it will be Wally, or one of her students.”