Wally Funk is finally going into space. When she crosses the arbitrary height separating the sky from the earth in a rocket built by Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin on Tuesday, she will be 82 years old, the oldest person to have ever flown into space. But that’s not what makes them so special.
Ms. Funk is one of the few people who has so far directly participated in both eras of manned space travel – the one that began as an urgent race between rival nations and the one we are now moving into, the private corporation and the billionaires who they finance and face tough competition for customers, supplies and contracts. The fact that she was ultimately excluded from the first phase as a woman and will now be included in the next also clarifies difficult questions about who is there for.
Her journey into space began with a skiing accident in 1956 in which two of her vertebrae were crushed. She was told she would never leave again. By the age of 17, she already had a history of saying “You can’t” with defiant evidence that she could. When she recovered, a career counselor suggested that she take flight lessons to distract her. In the book “Promised the Moon” by Stephanie Nolen, Ms. Funk said that during her first flight in a Cessna 172 “the bug bit and that was it”.
That year she went solo and got her pilot’s license when she was 17. Ms. Funk flew at every opportunity, including sneaking out of a formal dance for night flights. In total, she has completed over 19,600 flight hours and taught more than 3,000 people to fly.
She has probably spent more time as a pilot in airplanes than the three men she goes into space with as plane passengers.
When she received a trophy in her senior year of college that recognized her as the most outstanding female pilot, the airport manager said, “Take note of my words, if a woman ever flies into space, it will be Wally or one of her students.”
When she was 21 it looked like it could happen. She saw an article in Life magazine with a photo of a woman swimming in an isolation tank under the heading “A Wet Start to Space,” and she immediately sent letters to the woman, the doctors in the article, and the hospital that had run the test.
“I’ve been most interested in these tests to become an astronaut since I learned to fly,” she wrote in a letter to Dr. William Lovelace.
In 1961, three years before Jeff Bezos was born, Ms. Funk and 12 other women were tested as part of the Woman in Space program. The tests were conducted by Dr. Lovelace designed for the Mercury astronauts. He wanted to put women through the same tests to see if they would be good candidates for space. They didn’t take anyone under 24, but they did take Ms. Funk.
Tests included having ice water pumped into their ears to make them dizzy and placed in a tank for sensory deprivation. Ms. Funk had been in the tank for over 10 hours when the researchers finally took her out because they wanted to go home. She fell asleep.
Across the board, the women who passed this first round of testing did as well or better than their male counterparts, and it was in this group that Ms. Funk stood out.
All of these women were pilots with hundreds or thousands of flying hours behind them – in some cases more than the men selected for the astronaut program.
None of these women went into space. The U.S. government shut down the Woman in Space program when the Cold War space race heated up. While Valentina Tereshkova flew into space for the Soviet Union in 1963, NASA did not fly an American into orbit until 1983.
When you hear about these women today they are often called Mercury 13, but they called themselves FLATs: First Lady Astronaut Trainees. The history of the FLATs was not widely known until recently. But among women and non-binary people who work in space exploration, the report of Ms. Funk and her cohort struggling to become astronauts and being blocked because of their gender has caught on.
Some of these women see in Ms. Funk a personal heroine who broke gender barriers and they hope that she will once again become a role model for women and girls.
“It’s amazing to see her finally go into space decades after proving that she was not only capable, but perhaps even more capable than the men she faced during the Mercury program,” said Tanya Harrison, a planetary scientist and director of science strategy at Planet Labs.
“Their enthusiasm and attitude are positively contagious,” added Dr. Harrison added, “So I hope that your flight into space will give you a new platform to inspire a whole new generation of girls to do space or aviation.”
Ms. Funk said she was not discouraged when she learned that the program had been canceled.
“I was young and happy. I just believed it was coming, ”she said. “If not today, then in a few months.”
She applied twice to NASA for the Gemini missions in 1962 and again in 1966. Over the years she applied four times to be an astronaut and was turned down because she never had an engineering degree. However, when astronaut John Glenn was selected for the Mercury program, he did not have an engineering degree either.
Neither does Oliver Daemen, the 18-year-old high school graduate who will be arriving with her.
Ms. Funk has spent the last 60 years trying to find a different way into space.
“I was raised to go to your alternative when things don’t work,” she said.
She bought a ticket for Virgin Galactic for $ 200,000 in 2010 in the hopes that it would finally get her into space. It’s hard not to watch the billionaire’s space race and wonder if Mr. Bezos invited her to outdo Richard Branson. He’s the one taking Ms. Funk into space.
Cady Coleman, a NASA astronaut who served aboard the space shuttle and the space station, sees the invitation as a message to Ms. Funk and many other unsung women in space and aviation.
“Wally – you are important. And what you did matters. And I honor you, ”says Dr. Coleman that Mr. Bezos says. She adds, “If Wally flies, we’ll all fly with her.”
But for many women and non-binary people who delve into space and astronomy, the moment is more nuanced than just a lifelong dream come true.
“On the one hand, I am happy for her that she can realize the dream she has cherished for so long,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. “On the flip side, her individual granting this opportunity does nothing to remove any of the reasons she was previously banned from space travel and, in fact, still depicts a man of great privilege – this time specifically Jeff Bezos – as gatekeeper for their access to space, which they already deserve and deserve. “
Previous forms of gatekeeping prevented so many women from successful careers in aerospace and space science. Of the 13 FLATs, only Ms. Funk and Gene Nora Jessen are still alive. Ms. Jessen had to give up flying in 2017 due to macular degeneration and Ms. Funk fought for her journey into space for 60 years.
“These individual stories and victories are important, but not fair,” added Dr. Walkowicz added.
Katie Mack, an astrophysicist and assistant professor of astronomy at North Carolina State University, also spoke about Ms. Funk’s thrill in going into space, but also about who gets to make the decisions.
“The choice of space crew on whim and money rather than government selection is a shift that I am still struggling with,” said Dr. Mack. “Of course, as we can see in the case of Wally Funk, agencies like NASA can make bad decisions and shut out people who would be great astronauts. But as much as I wholeheartedly support Bezos’ decision to send Wally now, I still don’t know if I like the new criteria better. “
As we move into the world where commercial space offers opportunities based not on skills but on wallet size, we must continue to ask ourselves: Who is space really there for?
But right now, in the four minutes of Blue Origin’s flight on Tuesday, there is room for Wally Funk and the three men who are fortunate enough to witness their joy up close.
Mary Robinette Kowal, winner of the Hugo Award, is the author of the series “The Lady Astronaut”, “The Glamourist Histories” and “Ghost Talkers”. Her work has appeared in Uncanny, Cosmos and Asimov.