Mary Wallace Funk was born in New Mexico in 1939. “Wally,” as she was known to family and friends, built balsa wood airplane models as a child and took her first flying lesson when she was just nine years old. By the time she was 19, she had gotten a pilot’s license and had earned multiple flight instruction ratings at Oklahoma State University.
At Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Funk became the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base. Although she worked as a Civilian Flight Instructor there and then became a Certified Flight Instructor, Charter and Chief Pilot with an aviation company in California, she was turned down for commercial airline pilot positions because she was a woman.
When she was just 22, Funk was selected as a female astronaut candidate for the “Women in Space” program. Along with a dozen other women, she underwent rigorous physical and mental testing and training, from drinking radioactive water to spending more than 10 hours floating in an isolation tank. Funk was the youngest woman in the program and ranked third of the 13 candidates.
Even though the women in the Mercury 13 program, as it was called, endured the same testing as NASA’s Mercury Seven male astronauts (all of whom eventually went to space), the program was terminated. Eventually, NASA did begin to train female astronauts. And although Funk pursued her dream of going to space and had such a remarkable background, she was denied each of the four times she applied because she lacked an engineering degree or experience as a test pilot.
She later became the first female Air Safety Investigator, participated in many air races, and worked as a flight instructor and in flight safety until she retired in 1985, when she was appointed a Federal Aviation Administration Safety Counselor. Over the course of her career, she taught more than 3,000 pilots.
“I never let anything stop me,” Funk told NPR. “I know that my body and my mind can take anything that any space outfit wants to give me — high altitude chamber test, which is fine; centrifuge test, which I know I can do five and six Gs. These things are easy for me.”
It may have taken time, but her dreams paid off when Jeff Bezos selected Funk to join him and two other passengers on the first crewed flight of his company Blue Origin’s spacecraft, the New Shepard rocket, which took place on Tuesday. At age 82, she became the oldest U.S. space traveler on Tuesday, overtaking John Glenn. He was 77 years old on his last mission.
She was thrilled with the experience even though she couldn’t see Earth in its entirety through the craft’s windows.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get up there,” Funk told the Washington Post, “and I’ve done a lot of astronaut training through the world — Russia, America, and I could always beat the guys on what they were doing because I was always stronger.”
It might not be her last trip to space, either, as she reportedly deposited $200,000 toward a flight with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space flight company in 2010.
“I want to go again,” she shared with the Washington Post, “fast!”