Pilot and space pioneer Mary Wallace Funk has not let setbacks bring her down over 82 years of living. This week, the New Mexico native’s reward came in the form of a ride on a rocket ship.
Wally Funk became the oldest person ever to reach suborbital space, besting John Glenn, who was 77 on his last mission. As a passenger in billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins rocket, Funk was fulfilling a dream too long deferred.
In the 1960s, she was the youngest of a group of female aviators going through tests and training in hopes of becoming astronauts through the Women in Space program. It was canceled before any of the women — dubbed the Mercury 13 — got their chance at space, but not before they went through the same rigorous training as the Mercury 7 astronauts.
Undaunted, Funk went on to a stellar career in aviation. She also continued to apply to NASA to be an astronaut in the 1970s but was turned down. Instead, she worked as an inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and was the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. Funk has accrued some 19,600 flight hours and taught more than 3,000 students to fly, she wrote in an Instagram post.
All these accomplishments come from a woman born in 1939 in Las Vegas, N.M., and raised in Taos, where her parents ran a five-and-dime on the Plaza. She took her first flying lessons at 9, excelled at skiing and at 14 won a Distinguished Rifleman’s Award for her shooting skills. Her passion for flying likely was fueled by her mother, who wanted to take a barnstorming flight as a 17-year-old in Olney, Ill., only to be told by her father that “Ladies do not fly.”
As Funk demonstrated, ladies indeed do fly. And they can go to space.
This week she joined three other passengers on a rocket — they topped out at 66.5 miles and enjoyed several minutes of weightlessness inside the capsule, able to gaze at Earth and the universe.
After decades of waiting, Funk was floating, and it likely won’t be the only time she realizes her dream. Even before Bezos offered her a free seat on his rocket, Funk had plopped down $200,000 to reserve a seat on billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flights. The new space race, rather than involving nations, is among billionaires.
Branson took off first earlier this month — from New Mexico’s Spaceport America — and Amazon founder Bezos launched his Blue Origins rocket out of West Texas. A third billionaire, Elon Musk, is planning to send civilians on multiday space trips with his SpaceX company — although it’s unclear whether Musk will fly, too. Whether space tourism evolves into businesses that benefit the planet rather than simply another way for the super-rich to take joyrides remains to play out.
For Wally Funk, there’s no question about returning to space. She plans to use her Virgin Galactic ticket and will be a New Mexican taking off from New Mexico (Bezos, by the way, was born in Albuquerque, giving the West Texas launch another New Mexico connection).
As she exited the New Shepard rocket, Funk said, “I want to go again. Fast.”