Thursday, July 22, 2021

Space age: Wally Funk finally made it! -- July 22, 2021 column


I tried to resist the billionaires’ space race.

The space trips by Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos were exciting, but how rich people spend their money is only of passing interest to me.

I’m astonished anyone would bid $28 million for a 10-minute ride, even to outer space, as an unnamed individual did in Blue Origin’s auction. Even more astonishing, the winner canceled, citing scheduling conflicts. Really?

In that person’s place July 20 was the 18-year-old son of a real estate mogul in the Netherlands. The dad paid a lower, undisclosed sum for Oliver Daemen to become the world’s youngest space traveler. Teens I know are thrilled to get an old Honda. Really.

But then along came Wally.

Bezos, the world’s richest human, invited Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, an 82-year-old aviator who trained to become an astronaut in the 1960s, as his “honored guest” on his historic space flight. Funk was the oldest person ever in space when she went up with Bezos, his brother Mark and Daemen in the New Shepard rocket, named for astronaut Alan Shepard.

How it is that most of us had never heard of Wally Funk but know way too much about Britney Spears is a conundrum of our modern age. Funk is exemplary, a model of patience, hard work, perseverance and grit.  

So, before we sink back into the morass of Covid statistics and dysfunction on Capitol Hill, let us savor the remarkable, inspirational life of Wally.   

Funk made her first attempt at flight about age 5, donning a Superman cape and “flying” off her daddy’s barn onto a bale of hay. She later made balsam wood airplanes and hung them in her bedroom, she said in an oral history interview.

In learning about Funk, I discovered she and I have something in common. We both attended Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. Stephens started an aviation program for women students in the 1940s. The Flying Susies was the first of its kind in the country. The college ended the program in the early 1960s, before I arrived.

Funk went to Stephens in 1956, earning her pilot’s license at age 17. At that time, Stephens was a two-year “girls school,” and Funk transferred in 1958 to Oklahoma State University, which had a robust aviation program.

In 1961, three years before Bezos was born, Funk volunteered for the Mercury 13 program, a privately funded program aimed at testing whether women could be astronauts. At 21, she was the youngest of the 13 women selected. They called themselves the FLATs – First Lady Astronaut Trainees.

Through dozens of punishing physical and psychological tests, the FLATs were found to be just as qualified, if not more so, than the men training for Project Mercury. Funk endured 10 hours and 35 minutes inside a sensory deprivation tank – longer than anyone else. But the women were not allowed into space.

Then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote, “Let’s stop this now!” on a letter about women astronauts, and in 1962, the FLATs received telegrams saying their training had been canceled.

Funk applied to NASA four times to become an astronaut and was rejected each time. At one point, she was told she didn’t qualify because she lacked an engineering degree and would need to have one in nine months, which was impossible.

She racked up other firsts: first woman Federal Aviation Administration inspector and the first woman air safety investigator of the National Transportation Safety Board. She kept flying, logging more than 19,600 flying hours. She has taught more than 3,000 people to fly.

And she kept her dream alive. In 2012, Funk used her savings to buy a $200,000 ticket for one of Branson’s future spaceflights. Then Bezos asked her to come along for free. A little one-upsmanship there?

After the 10-minute flight, Funk emerged from the capsule grinning, her arms spread wide, as though embracing the world.

“I loved every minute of it. I just wish it had been longer,” she said. They had four minutes of weightlessness.

“I want to thank you, sweetheart,” Funk said to Bezos. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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