Day 6

'Waited a lifetime': Wally Funk will finally live out her space dreams, says friend

Wally Funk has dreamt of going to space for more than six decades. On July 20, 2021, the American pilot and member of the so-called Mercury 13 will finally achieve that dream — thanks in part to Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos.

On July 20, 2021, Wally Funk will have achieved a dream she's spent almost 60 years chasing

On Thursday, July 1, 2021, Blue Origin announced that Mercury 13 astronaut trainee Wally Funk will be aboard the company’s July 20 launch from West Texas, flying as an “honoured guest.” (NASA via AP)

Wally Funk had already taken her first steps toward becoming an astronaut when she was 23 years old. 

As one of the civilian pilots in Dr. Randy Lovelace's Woman in Space Program, Funk successfully passed the same physical exams as the men who would later be known as the Mercury Seven — the same men who would become the first Americans to visit outer space. 

Despite her accomplishments — and the achievements of the 12 other women who also passed Lovelace's tests, dubbed the Mercury 13 — Funk never left Earth's atmosphere, having her plans scuttled by NASA's unwillingness to permit women into the U.S. space program. 

But on Tuesday, July 20 — almost 20 years later — Funk will achieve her dream of travelling into space.

And it's thanks, in part, to Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos. He publicly confirmed on July 1 via Instagram that Funk will be one of four passengers on the inaugural crewed flight run by Bezos's Blue Origin commercial aerospace company.

"It was a surprise to me, it was a surprise to a lot of her friends," said Sue Nelson, a science writer, broadcaster and Funk's friend for more than 20 years, in an interview with Day 6 host Brent Bambury. 

"We were not expecting the announcement."

Not only will Funk make history by participating in a Blue Origin crewed flight, but at 82 years old, she's also set to become the oldest person to ever fly into outer space.

Wally Funk (second from left) poses with other members of the Mercury 13 as they attend a shuttle launch in Florida. (NASA/The Associated Press)

Nelson was one of the first people to congratulate Funk, who said she "waited a lifetime for this," according to Nelson. 

"She said she was 'Going up for all of us,'" said Nelson, who also authored Wally Funk's Race for Space.

"By 'all of us,' I think she meant the other women, the so-called Mercury 13, who had all passed these tests in the early 1960s … but never got the chance to go into space."

Preparing for space 

Tuesday's flight aboard the New Shepard launch vehicle won't be the last time Funk will experience the thrills of suborbital flight. 

She also holds a ticket for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic aerospace company, and plans on making the space-bound journey from SpacePort America in New Mexico as soon as she can.

Wally Funk undergoing testing as a part of the Mercury 13 program. (Netflix)

"Every day she is preparing to go into space," Nelson said. "She keeps fit, she goes swimming, she does her exercises, she does crosswords to keep mentally fit." 

Nelson added that Funk has also taken steps to prepare for space in "more practical ways," by taking several zero-G flights and undergoing training in a centrifuge. 

"But to be honest, as she's a pilot, that G-force aspect of space flight is not going to faze her, because through doing acrobatics as a pilot when she was younger and just flying full-stop … you can often pull six Gs when you're doing that," said Nelson. 

Wally Funk (right), alongside other members of the Mercury 13, at the 1995 Space Shuttle launch of NASA astronaut Eileen Collins. (Netflix)

"She's not your average 82-year-old."

And while Funk's age means she's going to break a record set by John Glenn — a former NASA astronaut who testified against permitting women to carry out space travel — Nelson says Funk's motivations for venturing into space have nothing to do with outshining anyone. 

"It's about being a woman, being a pilot, being told that you can't do something because you're a woman," she said.


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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