Who is Wally Funk? Jeff Bezos welcomes trailblazer pilot on Blue Origin’s first flight

Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft launches from Texas

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Blue Origins will briefly fly to space this month with the company’s very first crewed flight pencilled in for July 20. Launching aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, the world’s richest man and former Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, will be joined by a number of special guests. The billionaire will be accompanied by his brother Mark, a mystery auction winner who paid £20million ($28million) for the privilege, and guest-of-honour Wally Funk.

Mr Bezos shared a touching video to his Instagram earlier this week where he broke the good news to Ms Funk.

The billionaire tells the 82-year-old woman: “We’re going to fly you into space on the very first flight.”

The pair then spontaneously hug it out with a laugh and big smiles on their faces.

Ms Funk then tells the camera: “I can’t tell people that are watching how fabulous I feel to have been picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip. And I’ll love every second of it.”

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Who is Wally Funk?

Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk is a pioneering aviator and former air safety investigator, who for a brief moment in time stood the chance of becoming one of the first women to fly into space.

While NASA was busy training America’s first class of seven astronauts in the 1950s and 1960s, the so-called Mercury 7, a private enterprise was underway to train America’s first female astronauts.

These 13 women were known as the Mercury 13 and underwent the same rigorous screening as the Mercury 7, and in many cases appeared to outperform their male competition.

Unfortunately, due to the patriarchal sentiments of the time, women were deemed unfit to become astronauts.

Despite their best efforts and a congressional committee held in 1962, the Mercury 13 were prevented from joining NASA’s programme.

It was not until 1978 that women first joined NASA’s Astronaut Group 8, with Sally Ride becoming the first American woman in space.

Meanwhile, the honour of being the first female astronaut went to Russian engineer Valentina Tereshkova who became a cosmonaut in 1963 on the Vostok 6 mission.

After her time in the Mercury 13, Ms Funk went on to have an illustrious career as an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

But she has also spent a lifetime searching for ways in which she could finally become an astronaut – and Blue Origin could finally be her big break.

Born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1939, a young Wally Funk grew up in Taos, New Mexico.

From a young age, she has had a fascination with planes and aviation.

By the age of nine, she has had her first flying lesson – and would later in life go on to become the first female civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

After leaving high school at the age of 16, she went on to join the Flying Susies at the Stephens College Aviation programme.

In 1958 she graduated with a pilot’s license and continued to impress with her flying skills, receiving numerous trophies and awards.

In 1964, Stephen’s College recognised her with the Alumna Achievement Award, making her the youngest woman in history to claim the title.

At the age of 20, she became a professional aviator and in 1961 volunteered for the privately organised Women in Space programme.

The programme was not a part of NASA nor was it an official ticket into space – but for a while, it seemed as though the women of the Mercury 13 had a good chance of earning their wings.

Ultimately government officials decided only male aviators could qualify to train for the coveted astronaut role.

In the preface to the 2018 book, Wally Funk’s Race for Space, author Sue Nelson described Ms Funk as a force of nature but also living, breathing history.

She wrote: “Wally is also the sort of woman who, if history had been kinder, might have been the first woman on the Moon.

“She has spent over 50 years trying to become an astronaut and get into space and is now, with the birth of commercial spaceflight, the closest she has ever been. It is a desire I can understand.”

After the Women in Space programme was cancelled, Ms Funk went on to become a Goodwill Ambassador and the first female Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) inspector.

She continued to apply to NASA to join the astronaut training programme in the 1970s but to no avail.

When she finally flies aboard the New Shepard this month, she will become the oldest person to fly into space at 82.

Who was in the Mercury 13?

The women of the trailblazing group were:

  • Jerrie Cobb
  • Wally Funk
  • Irene Leverton
  • Myrtle “K” Cagle
  • Jane B. Hart
  • Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen]
  • Jerri Sloan [Truhill]
  • Rhea Hurrle [Woltman]
  • Sarah Gorelick [Ratley]
  • Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman
  • Jan Dietrich
  • Marion Dietrich
  • Jean Hixson

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