The Hurdles Wally Funk, 82, Overcame to Finally Get a Seat on a Spacecraft

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space company said that Wally Funk, an 82-year-old female aviator, will fly on the first crewed flight of its New Shepard rocket later this month.

Funk was one of the Mercury 13, a group of women whom NASA selected to become the first female astronauts—before the project was scrapped in the early 1960s.

She had a keen interest in flight and spaceflight ever since she was young, making planes out of balsa wood when she was seven, The Guardian reported.

In her teens, she got a flying license and went on to study education at Oklahoma State University, simply because it had an aviation team—the Flying Aggies—which she joined. She then went on to become the sole female flight instructor at a U.S. military base.

After some time, Funk heard about a private program to put the first woman in space, run by aerospace physician and NASA committee member William Randolph Lovelace.

Lovelace was in charge of developing tests to check if astronaut candidates could handle being in space. But his program to test whether women could also do it wasn't sanctioned by NASA.

Funk got in touch, detailing her experience, and stated that she wanted to apply for the program. Despite being 22 and three years under the minimum age requirement, she was accepted.

Funk and the other candidates were then submitted to a series of tests to determine whether they could deal with spaceflight, including being placed into a sensory deprivation tank. She told The Guardian she spent more than 10 hours inside and broke the record.

Funk and 12 other women, including Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb who scored in the top 2 percent of all candidates regardless of gender, had made the final cut by the end of 1961. They became known as the Mercury 13.

Space Project Cancelled

But Funk and the project soon hit a hurdle. The U.S. government didn't want to allow Lovelace to use the military equipment required to test the women for spaceflight properly because NASA had no intention of considering a female astronaut at the time, according to Space.com.

Two of the 13 women pleaded their case, but ultimately the project was cancelled.

Funk was undeterred. "Well, it's not going to stop me," she told The Guardian. "Things were cancelled? So what?"

Over the years she continued to take tests when she could, even travelling to Russia to take cosmonaut tests. She tried to get a college engineering degree—a training program requirement for NASA—but said she was turned away because she was female. So she continued her career as a flight instructor.

On July 20, 2021, Funk will finally achieve her dream of getting to space after being invited aboard New Shepard.

She said in an Instragram post shared by Jeff Bezos: "I'll love every second of it."

Wally Funk
Wally Funk with other prospective space tourists at the first public landing of the Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise spacecraft in New Mexico in October 2010. Funk has been trying to get to space for decades. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty