60 Years Later: Wally Funk, an Original Mercury 13 Member, Finally Catapults Into Space

If it wasn’t for a friend who had clued me in last week, I embarrassingly *may* have missed today’s live coverage of the historic Blue Origin space launch featuring the richest man on the planet Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk.

If you find yourself asking the question “Who is Wally Funk?” – you may not be the only one. If it hadn’t been for my huge interest in all things having to do with women in aviation, I may not have known who Wally Funk was before today, either …

As has now been widely reported, Wally Funk is one of the original members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) program of the early 1960s. With 19,600 flight hours and numerous achievements and accolades to her credit, she was not only featured in the 2018 Netflix documentary entitled Mercury 13, but in Amy Shira Teitel’s recent book Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight.

In 2004, the Los Angeles Times published a feature story entitled “The Unlaunchable Wally Funk,” in which the author traced her saga from the early 1960’s until 2004, outlining her achievements in flight, but also ultimately her unfortunate inability to ever make it into space. In covering her achievements following the shutdown of the FLATs program, the author wrote:

She became a flight instructor at Hawthorne Municipal Airport and competed in women’s air races from coast to coast. A three-year around-the-world interlude in a VW camper took her to 59 countries before she ran out of money. Back in L.A., she was hired as a field examiner by the FAA and then an accident investigator by the NTSB–both jobs a first for women, she says. After investigating 450 accidents ranging from a probable mob hit to a fatal crash at a mortuary, she retired in 1985 and went back to teaching.

Funk lectured widely on space and safety. She skydived, bungee-jumped, raced cars, ballooned and, in Wild West costume, competed as “The Taos Kid” in shooting competitions. She entered hoity-toity car shows in a custom-body Rolls-Royce once owned by the Queen Mother. She designed and built her own house in Taos. She appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” with Billie Jean King (“I did all the talking”) and was featured flying aerobatics in a Stearman biplane in a Merrill Lynch TV spot (“Sure, I take risks for fun. But when it comes to my money, I’m really careful.”). More recently, and for no apparent reason, she popped up on a CD titled “The Flight of Wally Funk,” by the Australian rock band Spiderbait.

But through it all, she never forgot the ride not taken.

Nearly 20 years later though, it finally appears that all of this has now changed, not only in history’s favor but to Jeff Bezos’ credit. Here’s a short video clip of Bezos telling Wally about how she was going to come up to space with him.

And here’s a look at the recent headlines from CBS and Newsweek, to The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Washington Post, and more:

  • Who is Wally Funk? Trailblazing aviator becomes oldest person to travel to space at 82 | CBS News (read more)
  • Who Is Wally Funk? Oldest Blue Origin Passenger Who Outperformed Jeff Bezos | Newsweek (read more)
  • Guess Who’s Going to Space With Jeff Bezos? Wally Funk has been ready to become an astronaut for six decades. | The Atlantic (read more)
  • Wally Funk Is Defying Gravity and 60 Years of Exclusion From Space | New York Times (read more)
  • Wally Funk’s 60-Year Journey Into Space; In the early 1960s, she was one of 13 women who trained to become an astronaut — but it wasn’t until Jeff Bezos brought her on board that she was able to fulfill that dream | Rolling Stone (read more)
  • Wally Funk Is Going to Space Aboard Jeff Bezos’s Rocket. Here’s Why That Matters | Time Magazine (read more)
  • In 1961 She Lost Her Chance to go to Space. Today, at 82, She Finally Got Her Shot | Washington Post (read more)
  • Wally Funk, the ‘heart of this mission,’ finally reaches space at 82 | MSNBC (read more)
  • Wally Funk fulfills lifelong dream to go to space with Blue Origin flight
  • The 82-year-old became the oldest person to go to space, six decades after being denied by the US government | The Guardian (read more)

Finally, here is a video in Wally’s own words about what it was like to finally go up into space today:

Today I learned that the Blue Origin feather is a symbol of the perfection of flight. From the first hot air balloonists, to the earliest aviators, to the pioneering test pilots, and beyond, I think everyone can appreciate this moment and how far we’ve come, yet how very far we’ve yet to go. Until then, cheers to Wally and congratulations to all at Blue Origin on a very historic, uplifting, and successful mission!

Get Inspired: 10 Modern Day Female Explorers to Watch Across Air, Space, Land & Sea

Recently I listened to an episode of the Women Who Travel podcast featuring Jessica Nabongo, who in October of 2019 became the first documented black woman to travel to every country in the world. How cool is that? I enjoyed listening to this podcast, hearing all about Jessica’s travels, and how she used social media to report on her adventures along the way. While I did not follow her story in real-time as she traveled around the globe, I was able to learn more about her journey through social media. 

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As I listened to Jessica’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder about how Joan Merriam Smith’s experience of being the first person to complete a solo flight around the world at the equator in 1964 would have, or could have been documented, if only social media, the internet, personal computers, or smart phones had existed back then. 

For example, it was only recently that I came across a video of Joan speaking for the very first time! What an experience it was to hear her voice after having wondered for so long what she would sound like. (Click below image to watch this video.)

Press conference with audio following the completion of Joan Merriam Smith’s 1964 around-the-world flight, courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History

Whenever I hear stories like Jessica’s or Joan’s, however, more than anything I am reminded of all the wonderful people out there who are busy living their lives and working hard to accomplish big goals, despite the obstacles. Because I came across so many inspiring stories while writing this book, I wanted to take a moment to recognize a few of the females I discovered along the way so that you might feel inspired too!

These women are listed in order of the domains they’ve dominated (air, space, and land, followed by sea) and is by no means meant to be comprehensive. It’s simply intended to be starting point for further exploration. Enjoy!

Modern Day Female Trailblazers Across Air, Space, Land & Sea

1) Jessica Nabongo – According to a June 2020 Travel & Leisure article entitled “Get to Know Jessica Nabongo, the First Documented Black Woman to Travel to Every Country in the World,” Jessica is a self-proclaimed geography nerd who has lived in five countries on four continents. By the time her epic expedition around the world commenced, she already had 60 countries under her belt. To keep up with Jessica, bookmark her website and/or follow her on Instagram.

2) Anneliese Satz – In 2019, Annelise became the first female Marine to complete the F-35B Basic Course, becoming the Marine Corps’ first-ever female F-35B pilot. During her four years of training, she accumulated over 300 flight hours. Before joining the Marines, Satz was a commercial pilot flying helicopters. Learn more about Annelise.

3) Alyssa Carson – At 19 years old, Alyssa is one of seven ambassadors representing Mars One, a mission to establish a human colony on Mars in 2030. At age 15, she became the youngest person accepted onto the Advanced PoSSUM Space Academy, making her one of the world’s youngest astronauts-in-training. You can learn all about her at her website. You can also follow her on Instagram.

4) Christina Koch – In February of 2020, astronaut Christina Koch returned to Earth after spending 328 days in space. On December 28, 2019, she broke the record for longest continuous time in space by a woman. Christina also participated in the first all-female spacewalk late last year. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Physics and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering. (Below video begins at about 6 minutes.)

5) Kristina Schou Madsen – Did you know that there’s an actual, annual World Marathon Challenge, whereby people train and compete to run 7 marathons, on 7 different continents, in just 7 days? In 2020, Kristina became the first woman to win the World Marathon Challenge outright with an average time of 3 hours, 25 minutes, and 57 seconds per marathon. You can read all about her accomplishment here. You can also follow her on Instagram. Here is a short video clip of Kristina talking about running.

6) Gloria Lau – In 2012, Gloria became the first Singapore woman to complete the 7 continents in 7 days challenge. In 2019, she became the oldest woman, at 67 years, to complete the challenge. Gloria only began running at the age of 57. Read more about her motivations, training schedule, and overall accomplishments here.

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7) Kate Harris – In 2011, Kate Harris took 10 months to bike the Silk Road, crossing through 10 countries, and cycling over 10,000 kilometers. She wrote a book about her experience entitled Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Below is a short video reel about her experience of biking the Silk Road.

8) Vanessa O’Brien – Just this month, British-American explorer Vanessa O’Brien officially became the first woman to reach Earth’s highest and lowest points. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Vanessa has also skied to both the North and South Pole. In addition, she has climbed five peaks over 8,000 metres. You can read more about her accomplishment here. Her website is filled with great information for those interested in keeping up with her. She also has forthcoming book entitled, To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth, which will be released in 2021.

9) Liz Clark – As a solo sailor, Liz recently shared all about her experience of solo sailing the Atlantic Ocean with Conde Nast. In total she has solo sailed some 20,000 miles over the past 10 years. She also wrote a 2018 book about her experiences entitled Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening.

10) Diana Nyad – In 2013, Diana Nyad became the first person to complete a 111-mile solo swim without a shark cage from Cuba to the Florida Keys at the age of 64. The swim took approximately 53 hours. Diana is the author of several books, including her latest Find a Way: The Inspiring Story of One Woman’s Pursuit of a Lifelong Dream. You can also keep up with her at her personal website.

Chances are, like me, you’ve only heard about a couple of these women. Aren’t they amazing? Sometimes they get publicity, sometimes they do not. Sometimes they are successful in their efforts, sometimes they are not. But the one thing that unites every single one of them is a drive to explore, push boundaries, seek adventure, and learn. There’s so much we can learn from this collective group … if only you can pin them down.

What other names would you add to this list?

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