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Wally Funk cheered as she defied gravity, floating up out of her seat and putting her hand above her head so she didn’t crash into the ceiling. At 82 years old, Funk has just become the oldest person to venture into low Earth orbit.
Out the window to her right, the blue expanse of Earth’s atmosphere met the cold black of space, colliding with a sort of sapphire corona marking the end of the planet’s hold on air. Around her, three men joined the zero-gravity experience Tuesday in the first-ever tourism space flight.
In the 1960s, Funk thought she might one of the pioneers leading humanity away from the pull of Earth’s gravity as a member of the Mercury 13, a group of women who trained as astronauts.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Funk was left to experience flight within the atmosphere. She’s logged somewhere around 19,000 flight hours.
But on Tuesday, as billionaire Jeff Bezos threw Skittles into the mouth of 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the youngest person ever in space and son of millionaire Dutch businessman Joes Daemen, Funk was pioneering a different venture into the unknown. For four minutes, she and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos and Daemen were weightless in a Blue Origin space capsule, the first tourists to fly this high above the planet.
The group took objects from humanity’s milestones of flight with them into orbit, like a piece of canvas from the Wright Flyer and the goggles of aviator and glass ceiling-destroyer Amelia Earhart. Jeff Bezos said after the flight the latter being in space with Funk would make Earhart proud.
Funk, who lives in Grapevine, was invited to go on the flight, along with Mark Bezos, not paying for the experience. Her ticket to low Earth orbit, worth $28 million if Daemen’s payment (more than 20 million in Euros) is any indicator, didn’t come with a dollar price. But she’s been working for the opportunity since she was a child.
When the time came to launch Tuesday, Funk said, she wasn’t nervous.
“I felt so charged,” Funk said at a livestreamed news conference following the launch. “I was just a normal, normal person going up into space and that’s all I wanted to feel.”
After rushing ahead of the other passengers and reaching the New Shepard’s cabin before anybody else, Funk wasn’t willing to wait anymore.
Jeff Bezos said Funk was so ready to blast off, when the launch was delayed for six minutes Funk’s anticipation turned to excited impatience.
“Wally was like, ‘Are we gonna go or not?’ What the hell?’“ Jeff Bezos said at the news conference.
Her first attempt to escape Earth’s gravity took place when she was 5 years old. Equiped with a Superman cape, she jumped from her father’s barn to a bale of hay below. In 2012, she paid $200,000 to board the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital rocket. She’s still waiting to cash in on that ticket.
SpaceShipTwo has achieved suborbital flight multiple times, taking tourists into a sort of psuedo zero-gravity experience created by the velocity of the rocket. But Bezos’ Blue Origin vessel is the first to take tourists into low Earth orbit.
When the four minutes were up, Funk and her fellow space tourism pilgrims strapped back in as the vehicle began its descent back into the grasp of the planet’s gravity. Three blue parachutes deployed.
Funk threw her arms in the air and gave a whoop as she walked onto the Blue Origin stage in Van Horn, a small West Texas town, for the post-flight news conference. As she marched to her seat, she blew kisses to an audience showering her with applause. When Blue Origin Astronaut pins were awarded to each of the four passengers, the applause for Funk was unmatched.
An astronaut and an inspiration
Her story is well documented, from her participation in the Mercury 13 project that sought to send women into space with NASA in the ‘60s to her purchase of a SpaceShipTwo ticket to her selection as a member of the New Shepard flight.
Funk outperformed male contenders for space flight in the ‘60s, but the Mercury 13 program was shut down when NASA decided it wanted to send an all-male crew into space.
Her pastor at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, John McKellar, told the Star-Telegram that Funk never got bitter about that. She channeled the rejection into her drive and passion for aviation.
Funk has flown for commercial airlines, taught aviation and investigated aviation safety, to name a few of her careers in aerospace.
“She is just inspiration to everybody around her, but it’s important to know that she is always that way,” McKellar said. “Not just now, when she’s going into space. Always.”
But her flight Tuesday is one of the most inspirational things she’s done. McKellar said the congregation of White’s Chapel gathered to watch her launch. When it was over, a woman in her 70s told McKellar seeing Funk venture into space inspired her to go to law school.
And she’s also a friend to everyone she meets, McKellar said, especially to him. He’s read her book, “Wally Funk’s Race for Space,” and has talked to her often over the years he’s known her. He’s heard of her excitement, the potential opportunities for space flight she’d been offered and the disappointed but determined reaction she’s had when those didn’t follow through.
And he said he cried when he found out this was the real thing.
“I was so thrilled and I shared it a lot in church,” McKellar said. “It’s like a member of the family getting to do this and achieve a lifelong dream.”
Soon-to-be seasoned space explorer
Funk wasn’t available for an interview Tuesday following the flight, but told the Star-Telegram in a 2012 article she knew she would go to space, and not just once.
“When I get into space, that’s when the book will be written,” she said in 2012. “And, I know when I do it once, I’m going to want to do it again.”
Funk will be the founding member of the Blue Origin frequent flier club, she said at the news conference. The idea was brought up in jest, eliciting laughs from Jeff Bezos and the audience, but it’s no joking matter for Funk.
She even said in 2012, before her book was published, that she was considering writing a memoir and using the profits to fund her future space expeditions.
She used royalties from movies and appearances to buy her Virgin Galactic ticket in 2012.
Whether that’s her next flight or she finds herself on another rocket won’t matter, though. Funk said she will be going back.
This story includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.