Wally Funk's space dream soon fulfilled, 60 years later
Steph Deschamps / July 2, 2021
Wally Funk is without a doubt a pioneer. But also a patient woman. Sixty years after joining a private program in the hope of one day becoming an astronaut, this seasoned pilot will finally realize her dream at the end of the month.
Billionaire Jeff Bezos chose her to board the first manned flight of his space company, Blue Origin, scheduled for July 20. At 82 years old, this ball of energy with short silver hair will become the oldest person to travel in space.
Wally Funk grew up in Taos, a small town in the US state of New Mexico. An aviation enthusiast, she took her first flying lesson at age 9. In high school, she was forbidden to take mechanics classes, which were reserved for boys.
This did not stop her from obtaining her pilot's license, and graduating from Oklahoma State University, known for its aviation program. She now has 19,600 hours of flight time under her belt.
At the very beginning of the 1960's, she joined an innovative program: the United States was preparing to send the first American into space, as part of the mythical Mercury program. Men were selected by NASA to be tested. But no woman.
A doctor who helped develop these tests, William Randolph Lovelace, decided to have women take them in his private clinic to see if they too could pass. Thirteen of them proved it giving the program its nickname, Mercury 13.
Wally Funk is the youngest of them.
They were pushing us to our limits,I endured a lot of pain, she recalls in a 1999 interview published by Nasa's historical service. But it brought me closer to space, and that was where I wanted to go.
For example, water is injected into her ears to induce a feeling of dizziness. She has to ingest rubber tubes. During another test, she is locked in a tank with perfect sound insulation, filled with water at the exact temperature of her body so that she does not feel anything, in the dark.
I was on my back, floating in this water, without being able to use my five senses i just had to lie there, she says.
She breaks the record by staying there for 10 hours and 35 minutes.
In the end, they told me I did the job better and faster than any of the men, she recalled Thursday in a video posted online.
In spite of everything, the program is stopped: NASA does not want it. It was not until 1983 that the first American woman flew in space.
It was kind of interesting, the fact that we could have done it, and they just wouldn't let us. A dog did it. A monkey did it. A man did it. Women can do it, too, she said in 1999.
Four times, Wally Funk applied to become an astronaut at NASA. Four times she was rejected, mainly because she did not have an engineering degree and had not completed a flight program on a military fighter plane something impossible for a woman at that time.
In spite of everything, her ambition pushed her far: she became the first woman inspector of the American aviation agency, the FAA. Then she became the first woman investigator of the American agency in charge of aeronautical disasters (NTSB), for which she treated more than 450 accidents until her retirement in 1984.
In total, she will have taught 3,000 people to fly. She now lives in Texas. And she never gave up her dream of weightlessness.
In 1999, when asked about her greatest achievement, she answered: If I can go into space, it will be this.