Wally Funk is finally going to space. When on Tuesday she crosses that arbitrary altitude that divides the heavens from Earth below, in a rocket built by Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin, she’ll be 82, the oldest person ever to go into space. But that is not what makes her so special.
Ms. Funk is one of the few people who has directly participated in both eras of human spaceflight so far — the one that started as an urgent race between rival nations, and the one that we are now transitioning into, in which private companies and the billionaires who finance them are in fierce competition for customers, comeuppance and contracts. That she was ultimately excluded from the first phase because she is a woman, and will now be included in the next one, also highlights difficult questions of whom space is for.
Her path to space arguably begins with a ski accident in 1956 that crushed two of her vertebrae. She was told she would never walk again. By age 17, she already had a history of greeting “you can’t” with defiant proof that she could. As she was recovering, a guidance counselor suggested that she take aviation classes to distract her. In the book “Promised the Moon” by Stephanie Nolen, Ms. Funk said that during her first flight up, in a Cessna 172, “The bug bit and that was it.”
That year she soloed and had her pilot’s license at 17. Ms. Funk flew at every opportunity, including sneaking out of a formal dance to go night flying. In all, she has logged over 19,600 flying hours and taught more than 3,000 people to fly.
She has probably spent more time in airplanes as a pilot than the three men she is going to space with have spent as airplane passengers.
In her senior year of college, when she earned a trophy recognizing her as the most outstanding pilot, the airport manager gave it to her said, “Mark my words, if ever a woman flies into space, it will be Wally, or one of her students.”
When she was 21, it looked as if it might happen. She saw an article in “Life” magazine with a photo of a woman floating in an isolation tank, under the headline “Damp Prelude to Space,” and she immediately sent letters off to the woman, the doctors in the article and to the hospital that had run the test.
“I am most interested in these tests to become an Astronaut, this has been ever since I learned to fly,” she wrote in a letter to Dr. William Lovelace.
In 1961, three years before Jeff Bezos was born, Ms. Funk and 12 other women went through testing as part of the Woman in Space Program. The tests had been designed by Dr. Lovelace for the Mercury astronauts. He wanted to put women through the same tests to see if they would be good candidates for space. They weren’t taking anyone under 24, but they took Ms. Funk.
The range of tests included having ice water pumped into their ears to induce vertigo and being placed inside a sensory deprivation tank. Ms. Funk was in the tank for over 10 hours when the researchers finally brought her out because they wanted to go home. She had fallen asleep.
Across the board, the women who passed that initial round of testing did as well or better than their male counterparts, and of that group, Ms. Funk excelled.
All of these women were pilots who had logged hundreds or thousands of flight hours — in some cases more than the men who were selected for the astronaut program.
None of those women have gone into space. The U.S. government shut down the Woman in Space Program just as the Cold War space race was heating up. While Valentina Tereshkova went to space for the Soviet Union in 1963, NASA would not fly an American woman to orbit until 1983.
When you hear about these women today, they are often called the Mercury 13, but they called themselves the FLATs: First Lady Astronaut Trainees. The story of the FLATs wasn’t widely known until fairly recently. But among women and nonbinary people working in the study of space, the account of Ms. Funk and her cohort struggling to become astronauts and being blocked because of their gender has resonated.
Some of those women see Ms. Funk as a personal hero who broke down gender barriers, and they hope she will again become an example to women and girls.
“Seeing her finally get to go into space decades after proving that she was not only capable, but perhaps more capable than the men she was essentially up against during the Mercury program is so incredible,” said Tanya Harrison, a planetary scientist and director of science strategy at Planet Labs.
“Her enthusiasm and attitude are positively infectious,” Dr. Harrison added, “and so I hope her flight into space gives her a renewed platform to inspire a whole new generation of girls to pursue space or aviation.”
Ms. Funk said that when she learned the program was canceled, she wasn’t discouraged.
“I was young and I was happy. I just believed it would come,” she said. “If not today, then in a couple of months.”
She applied to NASA twice in 1962 for the Gemini missions and again in 1966. Over the years, she applied four times to be an astronaut and was turned down because she had never gotten an engineering degree. By contrast, when the astronaut John Glenn was selected for the Mercury program, he also did not have an engineering degree.
Nor does Oliver Daemen, the 18-year-old high school graduate who will be riding up with her.
Ms. Funk has spent the past 60 years trying to find another way into space.
“I was brought up that when things don’t work out, you go to your alternative,” she said.
She purchased a ticket on Virgin Galactic in 2010 for $200,000, hoping that it would finally get her into space. It is hard not to look at the billionaire space-race and wonder if Mr. Bezos invited her as a way to one-up Richard Branson. He’s the one who gets Ms. Funk into space.
Cady Coleman, a NASA astronaut who served aboard the space shuttle and the space station, sees in the invitation a message to Ms. Funk and many more unsung women in space and aviation.
“Wally — you matter. And what you’ve done matters. And I honor you,” is what Dr. Coleman thinks Mr. Bezos is saying. She adds that “When Wally flies, we all fly with her.”
But for many women and nonbinary people involved in space and astronomy, the moment is more nuanced than just a lifelong dream realized.
“On the one hand, I am thrilled for her that she is getting to live this dream she has held for so long,” said Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. “On the other hand, her individually being granted this opportunity does nothing to address any of the reasons she was previously excluded from going to space, and in fact still poses a man of great privilege — this time specifically Jeff Bezos — as the gatekeeper for her access to space, access which she already earned and deserves.”
Earlier forms of this gatekeeping prevented so many women from accomplished careers in spaceflight and space science. Among the 13 FLATs, only Ms. Funk and Gene Nora Jessen are still alive. Ms. Jessen had to stop flying in 2017 because of macular degeneration, and Ms. Funk fought for 60 years to finally get her trip to space.
“These individual stories and victories are important, but they are not justice,” Dr. Walkowicz added.
Katie Mack, an astrophysicist and assistant professor of astronomy at North Carolina State University, also spoke to the thrill of Ms. Funk going to space but also about who gets to make the decisions.
“Selection of space crew based on whim and money rather than based on selections by governmental agencies is a shift I’m still struggling with,” Dr. Mack said. “Obviously, as we can see with Wally Funk’s case, agencies like NASA can make bad choices, and choose to exclude people who would be excellent astronauts. But as much as I wholeheartedly support Bezos’s decision to send Wally now, I still don’t know if I like the new criteria any better.”
As we move forward into the world where commercial spaceflight offers opportunities to go based, not on skills, but on the amount of money in one’s wallet, we will have to continue to ask the question: Who is space is really for?
But for the moment, for those four minutes of Blue Origin’s flight on Tuesday, space will be for Wally Funk, and those three men who are fortunate enough to be able to witness her joy firsthand.
Mary Robinette Kowal, a Hugo Award winner, is the author of “The Lady Astronaut” series, “The Glamourist Histories” series and “Ghost Talkers.” Her work has appeared in Uncanny, Cosmos and Asimov’s.