On the 52nd anniversary of man's first small step on the moon, Wally Funk will take one giant leap for womankind.
The 82-year-old aviation pioneer from Grapevine will become the oldest person ever to fly to space when she blasts off as billionaire Jeff Bezos' special guest passenger aboard his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket on Tuesday, July 20. (Astronaut John Glenn previously held the record, at 77.)
She will join Bezos; his brother Mark; and an 18-year-old from the Netherlands, Oliver Daemen, who will be the youngest person to take a spaceflight.
"I can't tell people watching how fabulous I feel to have been picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip," Funk (who declined interview requests a week before the flight) says in a Blue Origin Instagram video. "I'll love every second of it. I can hardly wait!"
It will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream denied to Funk decades ago, which is chronicled in the biography Wally Funk's Race to Space and her memoir Higher, Faster, Longer: My Life in Aviation and my Quest for Spaceflight, being released in paperback July 21.
Funk first trained to be an astronaut in the 1960s as part of the Woman in Space Program, described as "a privately-funded project which tested female pilots for astronaut fitness." Thirteen American women, known as the “Mercury 13,” successfully completed the same grueling psychological and physiological screenings as the astronauts selected by NASA for Project Mercury, but they never flew to space.
The program was ended due to concerns that women weren't desirable for space travel; at 22, Funk was its youngest graduate.
"They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys," she says in the video. "So I got a 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."
Funk went on to a legendary career as a pilot and flight instructor, becoming the first female FAA inspector and first female NTSB air safety investigator. She has taught more than 3,000 people to fly and estimates she's logged 19,600 flying hours — private, commercial, instrument, airline transport, gliding, and more.
"Everything the FAA has, I've got the license for," she says.
But she's never let go of that dream to fly to space, even buying a high-dollar ticket for a future trip.
According to this excellent profile in The Guardian, in 2010, Funk spent $200,000 for a seat on SpaceShipTwo — Virgin Galactic’s suborbital plane — which she intends to still use. (Virgin owner Richard Branson may have just beaten Bezos to space, but Bezos beat him to Wally Funk.)
But first comes the Blue Origin flight, which will launch from West Texas on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Tuesday, July 20, at 8 am CDT.
The rocket will fly 62 miles above Earth, widely recognized as the edge of space. Passengers will be in zero gravity for about three minutes before descending and touching safely back down in the West Texas desert. The entire trip is expect to take just 10 or 11 minutes.
Blue Origin plans to livestream the flight, and it will be covered live by myriad news stations beginning about 6 am.
In the Instagram video, Bezos asks Funk the first thing she'll say after she lands. "I say, 'Honey, that's the best thing that ever happened to me,'" she replies.
And if she does get to go twice? Well, taking two rides into space after age 80 seems to be exactly the kind of out-of-this-world adventure that Funk has craved for decades.
"Nothing has ever gotten in my way," she says. "They said, 'Wally you're a girl, you can't do that!' I said, 'Guess what. Doesn't matter what you are, you can still do it if you want to do it, and I like to do things that nobody has ever done.'"