Wally Funk: Oldest woman in space
This remarkable octogenarian’s life-long passion for aeronautics made her an inspirational teacher and figurehead – as well as a record-breaking astronaut.
Wally’s fascination with flight started early. As a girl, she delighted in building model aircraft and ships, and idolized Amelia Earheart, the pioneering aviator who’d become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo seven years before Wally was born.
By the age of 16, Wally had enrolled in Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, USA, which had a women’s flying club.
Aged 17, having earned her pilot’s license and graduated top in her class of 24 flyers, she moved on to Oklahoma State University – home to the country’s most acclaimed pilot-training programme – where she built up thousands of hours’ flying time.
By the time she graduated in 1960, she’d flown everything from seaplanes to gliders.
She also became an officer at the university’s renowned “Flying Aggies” aviation club, and picked up an armful of trophies, including “Outstanding Female Pilot”.
Despite such a promising start, Wally’s story might have ended there. Such was the gender discrimination of the time that women weren’t permitted to become pilots on commercial airlines, or to join the US Air Force.
Wally opted for one of the few options left to her and became a civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill in Oklahoma – training male Air Force candidates.
Aged 20, she embarked on her first job as a civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, USA. There, she taught male Air Force recruits how to fly, despite not being allowed to join the Air Force herself.
The Mercury 13 program
When NASA was inaugurated in 1958, it didn’t specifically exclude women from spaceflight training. But would-be astronauts were required to have served as military jet test pilot – a role only open to men.
Those women who became part of the US space program did so behind the scenes, but their contributions could be vital. In 1961, the inspirational Katherine Johnson calculated the flight trajectory for the Freedom 7 space capsule that housed Alan Shepard, the first American in space – a feat celebrated in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.
That same year, Wally – by now aged 21 – volunteered for the “Mercury 13” program. This privately financed project saw 25 female pilots undergo the same gruelling tests faced by NASA’s “Mercury 7” male astronauts – whose number included John Glenn (the first American to orbit Earth) and Alan Shepard.
One of Wally's fellow aspirants, Jerrie Cobb dubbed them the FLATS – First Lady Astronaut Trainees. William Randolph Lovelace II, who had overseen the Mercury 7 tests, once more invigilated, at his clinic in New Mexico.
Before, Wally wanted to be an aviator; now, she aspired to become an astronaut.
But although the FLATS’ encouraging success helped inspire discussion in Congress on the possibility of training female astronauts, resistance to the idea was deep rooted, not least within the US space program itself.
Just before the women’s final stage of training, the Mercury 13 initiative was discontinued.
The US House of Representatives arranged public hearings to find out why.
At one, John Glenn stated flatly, "The fact that women are not in this field [spaceflight] is a fact of our social order."
Not so in the USSR. In 1963, Junior Lt Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova became the first woman in space, orbiting Earth in Vostok 6 on 16 June.
Proof positive that the future of space exploration could include female astronauts, although it took NASA some time to follow suit.
When NASA was inaugurated in 1958, it didn’t specifically exclude women from spaceflight training.
But would-be astronauts were required to have served as military jet test pilot – a role only open to men.
Undeterred, Wally sought out what roles she could within the male-dominated aviation industry, while reapplying to NASA to join one of its training programmes.
Four applications; four rejections. She spent nearly a decade working as a flight instructor, all the while applying to airlines for jobs; without exception, she was turned down.
But despite the limitations imposed on her – purely because she was a woman – she pushed on with her career.
She became a flight inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board’s first female air safety investigator, while also managing academic flight-training programmes.
Her achievements didn’t go unrecognized: in 1964, she became the first woman to receive her alma mater Stephens College’s Alumna Achievement Award for her work in aviation.
And the following year, she was recognized as one of the “Outstanding Young Women of America”.
She went on to teach aeronautical flying at California’s Redondo High School, became a goodwill flying ambassador for three years and take part in numerous air races.
In 1975, Wally beat a field of 80 competitors to win the Pacific Air Race from San Diego, California, to Santa Rosa.
In what proved to be a stellar year, she was also invited to the White House for lunch – at the behest of Betty Ford, wife of the then-US President – and was made an Honorary Colonel by the Governor of Louisiana.
By now, female astronauts were gradually becoming a fact of life at space agencies.
In 1978, the first class of astronauts to include women – six in all – graduated at NASA.
Six years later Sveltana Savitskaya (USSR) became the first woman to perform a spacewalk; NASA’s Kathryn Sullivan followed suit in 1984.
NASA’s first chief of astronomy, Nancy Grace Roman, played a pivotal role in developing the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990.
And on 12 September 1992, Mae Jemison became the first female African-American astronaut to travel into space.
That same year, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a Space Shuttle, going on to become the first female commander of a US Space Shuttle in 1999. Each success dealt a body blow to the engrained bias against women working in this field.
A dream fulfilled
By the dawn of the 21st century, there were signs that space agencies were beginning to address gender discrimination and the wrongs of the past.
In June 2007, the US Congress formally honoured the contribution made by Wally and her fellow FLATS in a resolution commending “the Mercury 13 as pathfinders for NASA’s female astronauts, and [encouraging] young women to follow in their footsteps and pursue careers in aviation and astronautics, as well as engineering and science.”
In 2008, Peggy Whitson became the first female commander of the International Space Station in 2008. NASA’s astronaut recruits for 2013 was a 50/50 split between men and women.
And despite her age, Wally still hadn’t given up on her dream. She’d even put down a $200,000 deposit to ride Richard Branson’s much-delayed Virgin Galactic.
“I will get up there somehow,” she assured the Guardian in 2019, when she was still giving aviation lessons every Saturday. “I’ll be flying ’til I die.”
In 2021, exactly 60 years after the cancellation of the Mercury 13 program, Wally Funk finally got her chance to win her astronaut wings – courtesy of a multi-billionaire entrepreneur.
Former Amazon boss Jeff Bezos owns aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin and invited Wally to become an “honoured guest” on its NS-16 mission. “No one has waited longer,” told her. “It’s time.”
On 20 July 2021 – exactly 52 years to the day after the USA’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the Moon – Wally joined a four-person crew that took off in a New Shepard rocket from near Van Horn, Texas, USA.
Travelling at almost three times the speed of sound, the spacecraft reached an altitude of around 100 km (62 miles) before its capsule to Earth on parachutes.
After landing, another of her long-held ambitions was poignantly realized: Wally received her astronaut’s wings from former Space Shuttle commander Jeff Ashby, who has now joined the Blue Origin team.
As if things couldn’t get any better, on 24 March 2022, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum awarded Wally the Michael Collins Trophy for Lifetime Achievement.
After touching down on her record-breaking Blue Origin flight, a delighted Wally had told the cheering crowd “I want to go again. Fast!” After reading her story, who’d bet against her?