TAOS—Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviator who grew up in Taos, will become the oldest person in history to launch into suborbital space this month when she hitches a ride with Amazon business magnate Jeff Bezos and two other passengers on Blue Origin’s first manned space mission.
Bezos invited Funk, who now lives in Roanoke, Texas, to join the historic mission after learning she was among the “Mercury 13,” a group of women who underwent astronaut testing in the early 1960s but were never allowed to be part of a mission into space.
“No one has waited longer,” said Bezos on an Instagram video following the announcement he would be bringing Funk aboard. “It’s time. Welcome to the crew, Wally.”
“I can hardly wait,” Funk replied on Instagram.
Funk dedicated her career to aviation, becoming the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety inspector for the National Transportation Safety Board. She said in an Instagram video she has logged nearly 20,000 flight hours and has taught over 3,000 students to fly.
Funk was born in Las Vegas, N.M., in 1939 and grew up in Taos, where her parents owned a Five and Dime store on Taos’ plaza. Over time, her parents built a collection of artwork from members of the Taos art colony, who would trade pieces to pay off store debt.
She developed a love for aviation at a young age. Her parents took her to see a Douglas DC-3 airliner in New Mexico when she was 1 year old. At the age of 9, she took her first flying lessons. She was also an accomplished outdoorswoman and a particularly skilled skier and marksman. At 14, Funk received the Distinguished Rifleman’s Award.
In high school, she was prohibited from taking mechanical drawing and auto mechanics courses because she was a woman. She dropped out early to enter Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., where she became the top-rated member of the “Flying Susies.” She graduated in 1958 with her pilot’s license and an associate degree.
Funk earned a Bachelor of Science in secondary education at Oklahoma State University, known for its student “Flying Aggies” aviation program, and earned a number of instrumentation and instruction ratings.
Funk volunteered for the Woman in Space Program in 1961, later coined the “Mercury 13” after the 13 women who graduated. The program, led by William Randolph Lovelace with support from NASA, was intended to train women for the U.S. space program.
During her training, Funk set a record in a sensory deprivation tank, lasting 10 hours and 35 minutes and scoring higher than U.S. astronaut John Glenn.
She was the youngest (younger than the recruiting age) of the 19 program participants, and at the age of 23, the youngest to graduate. When the program shut down, Funk became a Goodwill Ambassador.
Funk never stopped dreaming of going to space. She applied to NASA three times but was never accepted because she did not have an engineering degree or a background as a test pilot.
“I talked to her yesterday. She is tremendously excited — I think very overwhelmed,” said Jacque Boyd, a fellow pilot and longtime friend of Funk’s.
“I think Wally truly exemplifies having a dream and never letting it go. I think that’s what so many of us who know her so well are just so excited about,” said Boyd, who lives in Angel Fire.
Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon on Monday before his company’s rocket, New Shepard, counts down for takeoff in Van Horn, Texas, on July 20, the same date the Apollo 11 moon mission left the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in 1969.
Mark Bezos, the Amazon executive’s brother, and an anonymous person who paid $28 million to charity for a seat will also be on board.
“To know that this is finally happening for her — I’m honestly not sure that Jeff Bezos knows exactly what he’s done, because it’s just so far beyond wonderful,” Boyd said.