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Wally Funk, 82, makes history as oldest person to fly to space

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At the age of 22, Wally Funk already had a résumé of lifetime achievements.

She earned top aviation ratings in college, was a professional certified pilot and became the first female civilian flight instructor at a U.S. military base — all at a time when women were systematically barred from many parts of life.

For Funk, all of it was in service of fulfilling one mission: becoming one of the first female astronauts. In 1961, the aviation whiz caught a break when, despite being under the required age of 24, she became the youngest of the so-called Mercury 13 women, who underwent testing to demonstrate that women could qualify for NASA's astronaut corps.

But because she was a woman, Funk's dreams of flying into space never came to fruition.

Until 60 years later.

On Tuesday, Funk, 82, joined Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on his historic flight to the edge of space aboard a rocket and capsule developed by his private spaceflight company, Blue Origin.

The crew launched at around 9:11 a.m. ET from a site in the west Texas desert southeast of El Paso. After liftoff, the New Shepard rocket accelerated toward space at three times the speed of sound.

At an altitude of 250,000 feet, the capsule separated, taking Funk, Bezos, his brother, Mark, and Oliver Daemen, 18, of the Netherlands, to the edge of space. The craft then descended under parachutes and landed in the Texas desert for a total flight time of roughly 10 minutes.

The much-anticipated trip marked a number of milestones, including the first unpiloted suborbital flight with an all-civilian crew, the first crewed launch for Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, and Daemen becoming the youngest person to reach space.

Funk, no stranger to breaking records, also made history as the oldest astronaut when she emerged from the spacecraft after landing, with a big grin and arms opened wide, a look of pure elation.

Image: Billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos and pioneering female aviator Wally Funk emerge from their capsule (Blue Origin / Reuters)
Image: Billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos and pioneering female aviator Wally Funk emerge from their capsule (Blue Origin / Reuters)

"I saw darkness, I thought I was going to see the world, but we weren't quite high enough," she said during a post-launch news conference Tuesday. "And I felt great. I felt like I was just lying down, just lying down — and I was going into space."

She described feelings of gratitude for finally seeing her long-delayed dream come to life.

"I've done a lot of astronaut training through the world, Russia, America, and I could always beat the guys on what they were doing because I was always stronger, and I have always done everything on my own," she said.

Indeed, Funk excelled across the board in every test she was given while participating in NASA's 1961 Women In Space Program — sometimes even surpassing the men who were selected for the counter astronaut program at the time. During one test, Funk was placed in a sensory deprivation tank where she remained for more than 10 hours before the researchers finally brought her out because they wanted to go home.

Image: Wally FUnk (Blue Origin via AFP - Getty Images)
Image: Wally FUnk (Blue Origin via AFP - Getty Images)

With more than 19,500 flying hours under her belt, Funk also likely has more time in the air than the three crewmen who joined her in space combined.

The historic launch occurred just nine days after British billionaire Richard Branson flew to the edge of space on a rocket-powered vehicle designed by his own space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. Both flights — combined with the competition between the rival billionaires — have captured global attention and garnered interest and enthusiasm for the nascent space tourism industry.

While some have criticized Bezos and Branson for their private spaceflight aspirations, many people, including elected officials, sports and media professionals, congratulated Wally on fulfilling her lifelong aspiration.

"Wally Funk is now on my list of people that I would most like to meet in this country," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. "She's America's sweetheart."

"This morning Wally Funk, age 82, who once trained to be an astronaut in the 1960s as one of the Mercury 13, became the oldest person ever to fly to space," Billie Jean King, the celebrated former American pro tennis champion, tweeted. "A success story 50+ years in the making."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also tweeted: "Texas breeds innovation. Congratulations @blueorigin and Texas' own Wally Funk on their historic first human spaceflight - launched right here in the Lone Star State!"

In her closing remarks after landing, Funk added: "I've been waiting a long time to finally getting up there."

"I loved it," she said. "I want to go again, fast!"