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Ginnie Graham: Trailblazing OSU graduate finally gets a chance at space flight with Jeff Bezos
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Ginnie Graham: Trailblazing OSU graduate finally gets a chance at space flight with Jeff Bezos

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Blue Origin Bezos Flight

In this undated image from video provided by Blue Origin on Thursday, July 1, 2021, Mercury 13 astronaut trainee Wally Funk, right, meets with Jeff Bezos. On Thursday, Blue Origin announced the early female aerospace pioneer will be aboard the company's July 20 launch from West Texas, flying as an honored guest.(Blue Origin via AP)

Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos has chosen an early female aerospace pioneer — an 82-year-old pilot denied astronaut wings decades ago because of her gender — to rocket into space with him in just three weeks.

Of the three people selected to join Jeff Bezos on his trip to space, an 82-year-old Oklahoma State University alumna has more than earned it.

Bezos announced in an Instagram video that Wally Funk would have a spot on his flight into space as an honored guest. If it happens, she will become the oldest person to enter space.

She is used to being the first of things.

She graduated from OSU in 1960 to become the youngest member of the “Mercury 13,” a group of 13 women who successfully underwent the same rigorous testing as the first astronauts. It was a private venture meant to pave the way for women in space but was canceled.

Funk is scheduled to join Bezos, his brother and an auction winner to board Blue Origin’s first crewed spaceflight on Tuesday — the anniversary of the 1969 Apollo moon landing.

She was the first woman to become a Federal Aviation Administration inspector and National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator, investigating more than 450 accidents in her career.

Throughout her life, Funk has been a flight instructor. She estimates logging more than 19,500 hours and teaching more than 3,500 students.

Funk took her first airplane ride at age 13 and earned her private pilot’s license by 16. She was drawn to OSU for the national reputation of the Flying Aggies flight team.

OSU inducted her into its Aviation Hall of Fame in 2010. She had entered the Aviation Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995.

She’s been turning down interview requests since Bezos’ announcement, but in a 2015 interview for the O-STATE Stories oral history collection, Funk describes the types of competitions, equipment and training she received as a student.

She recalled being a member of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority and not wanting to do all the “frou-frou stuff.” During dances, she would make a showing before returning to her room to change, sneak out the window and go to the Stillwater Airport for nighttime flying practice.

Funk flew nearly every day as a student.

“Oklahoma State gave me the knowledge and think-aheadness to become what I am now and get into space,” Funk said in oral history. “We loved each other. There was something about OSU from the very beginning that was a great bond.”

After graduation, she went to Fort Sill to become the first female civilian flight instructor. After a year, she went to California to become a chief pilot in a private airline service.

In 1961, Funk was asked to participate in a private project putting the nation’s top female aviators through the same physical and psychological tests used to choose NASA’s male astronauts for Project Mercury.

She was recruited by fellow female pilot Jerrie Cobb, a native of Oklahoma who is in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame for her trailblazing aviation career.

The project was conducted by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, who created the NASA tests, with private funds in his labs. Tests involved putting hands and feet in freezing water, injecting water into ears to induce vertigo and handling gravitational forces.

Researchers found that the women equaled or outperformed the male astronauts, especially in isolation and sensory deprivation.

A dark room would be adjusted to a person’s temperature before a participant was put in a water tank to float while wearing ear plugs. They would stay as long as possible.

Funk said it felt like she was there for about four hours. It was actually 10 hours and 35 minutes.

“I was told I was a good candidate,” Funk said in the oral history.

When NASA opened up programs to women in 1976, Funk applied three times.

She never gave up on her goal of experiencing space flight. In 2000, she participated in a program at a Russian cosmonaut training center that went through different space exercises.

Bezos did a good thing in giving Funk this shot into space. In 2015, she spoke about her chances of this happening.

“If it’s meant to be, it will come; it will happen,” she said. “I’d be the happiest kid in the world. I’ve done some really great things. I’m really happy with my life. I have no regrets — none.”


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