The pioneering female aviator, who accompanied Jeff Bezos in his trip to space is ‘America’s new sweetheart’
Wally Funk became the oldest person to reach space on Tuesday – some 60 years after first undergoing astronaut training.
Ms. Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women trained to become NASA astronauts in the 1960s but was passed over because of her gender.
On Tuesday, at the age of 82, she was one of Jeff Bezos’ three co-passengers aboard his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle to take a historic suborbital flight.
"I’ve been waiting a long time," Ms. Funk said afterward. "I want to go again – fast."
Her flight has earned Ms. Funk a new generation of admirers on social media, and beyond.
"Wally Funk is now on my list of people that I would most like to meet in the country. She is America’s new sweetheart," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.
Ms. Funk, who lives near Dallas, was the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. In the posted video, she said she has 19,600 flying hours and has taught more than 3,000 people to fly.
She was among two dozen female pilots who underwent six days of rigorous physical tests — the same ones administered to the Mercury astronaut candidates — in 1960 and 1961. The doctor who had tested the Mercury 7 men had heard the Soviets planned to send a woman to space and he wanted to see if women could endure the effects of weightlessness.
The candidates had to spend hours in an isolation water tank, swallow rubber hose, and get needles stuck in their heads, among other things.
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Thirteen of the women — including Funk — passed. But the program was abruptly canceled, and the Soviets went on to launch the first woman into space — Valentina Tereshkova — in 1963.
“They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys,” Ms. Funk recalled. "So I got hold of NASA four times. I said I want to become an astronaut, but nobody would take me. I didn’t think that I would ever get to go up.”
It wasn’t until 1983 that the first American woman soared into space — Sally Ride, who died in 2012. And it wasn’t until 1995 that an American woman piloted a spaceship — Eileen Collins aboard shuttle Discovery. Many of the Mercury 13 women gathered at Cape Canaveral for that launch.
Keen to get to space, Ms. Funk had reserved a seat years ago on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket ship.
(With inputs from AP)
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