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.”
8 pivotal moments from NASA's Space Shuttle program
July 8 through July 21 marks one decade since the last NASA space shuttle flight, with the Atlantis shuttle launching on July 8, 2011, to spend 13 days partly delivering supplies to the International Space Station.
On the 10th anniversary of that last space shuttle flight, let's take a spacewalk down memory lane.
The NASA space shuttle journey began in 1972, when then-U.S. President Richard Nixon announced the intent to develop the world's first inexpensive, reusable space shuttle for travel into space.
The first space shuttle flight, STS-1(Space Transportation System-1)Columbia, took off nine years later from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 12, 1981. Columbia's debut launched a 30-year program that included 135 missions; the transport of millions of pounds of cargo to and from space; firsts for racial, gender and ethnic minority astronauts; repairs and updates to the International Space Station; and more.
And though the program had its iconic firsts, it was also mired in tragic, fatal accidents at times. Here are eight pivotal moments from the space shuttle era.
1. The first US woman goes to space
When the space shuttle Challenger (mission STS-7) launched on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space. This was 20 years after the then-Soviet Union sent cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, on the Vostok 6 spacecraft in 1963.
2. The first African American achieves spaceflight
When Challenger's third mission, STS-8, took off on Aug. 30, 1983, deploying the Insat-1B weather and communications satellite for India wasn't the only record achieved. This launch also marked mission specialist Guion "Guy" Bluford Jr. becoming the first African American to fly in space.
3. Marking the first untethered spacewalk
After space shuttle Challenger launched on mission STS-41B the early morning of Feb. 3, 1984, mission specialists Bruce McCandless II and Robert L. Stewart did the first spacewalks outside of a shuttle without being tethered to the shuttle.
4. Resuming space shuttle flight post-Challenger explosion
The space shuttle Discovery voyage (STS-26) on Sept. 29, 1988, was NASA's first return to space shuttle flight about two-and-a-half years after the Challenger disaster that killed all seven crew members on Jan. 28, 1986.
5. Launching the Hubble Space Telescope
To deploy the telescope, space shuttle Discovery(STS-31) launched on April 24, 1990, and soared to an altitude of 370 miles (595.5 kilometers), the highest shuttle orbit ever at that time, according to NASA. Placed in orbit as two IMAX cameras recorded the mission on April 25, the Hubble Space Telescope has since informed our knowledge of the cosmos for over 30 years by sharing its observations of stars, galaxies and other astronomical objects.
6. Achieving the 100th US human space launch
Launching Atlantis, the last space shuttle, on June 27, 1995, marked the 100th U.S. human space launch. This mission (STS-71) was also when space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir for the first time — an international space collaboration that made Atlantis and Mir the largest combined spacecraft ever in orbit, totaling nearly half a million pounds (226,796 kilograms), according to NASA. This cooperation helped pave the way for the International Space Station.
7. Returning to space post-Columbia disaster
Nearly two-and-a-half years after the space shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas while reentering Earth, a second fatal accident that killed all seven crew members, Discovery(STS-114) launched on July 26, 2005.
"Take note of what you saw here," then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told reporters, according to a 2005 CNN report. "The power and the majesty of the launch, of course, but also the competence and the professionalism, the sheer gall, the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team that pulled this program out of the depths of despair."
8. Remodeling the International Space Station
One goal of the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-126) launch on Nov. 14, 2008, was for the crew to renovate a kitchen and bathroom on the ISS and deliver a new refrigerator. Also included in the cargo was exercise equipment. All supplies were part of NASA's hope to expand the space station and enable space personnel to have long-duration missions.