Wally Funk

Innovation

Who is Wally Funk? Photo reveals "Mercury 13" aviator is third Blue Origin passenger

Blue Origin is set to hold its first crewed flight to space on July 20 — and it will enable Funk to live out her dream.

Blue Origin

It’s a journey to space six decades in the making — and it’s set to finally become a reality this month.

On Thursday, spaceflight firm Blue Origin announced that the third passenger on its first crewed flight will be Wally Funk. The top candidate in the privately-funded “Mercury 13” program, Funk underwent the same screening tests as NASA astronauts but never flew to space herself.

On July 20, that dream will finally be fulfilled.

“I can’t tell people that are watching how fabulous I feel to have been picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip,” Funk said in a video shared on Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos’ Instagram feed. “I’ll love every second of it.”

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The announcement is a big moment in spaceflight. Funk may have been overlooked as an astronaut in the 1960s during the first space race, but the emerging new space race is enabling more people to fly than ever.

Funk may not have been the first woman to go to space — that accolade goes to Valentina Tereshkova who flew in 1963 — but she will be the first to fly on a Blue Origin vehicle that could mark a new era of spaceflight.

Blue Origin passenger flight: who is Wally Funk?

Born in 1939 in New Mexico, Funk had an early interest in aviation and mechanics. She took her first flying lesson at the age of nine, before going on to get her flying license at Stephens College in Missouri. Ninety-Nines explains that in 1964, she was the youngest woman in the college’s history to receive the Alumna Achievement Award.

“I’ll be flying ‘til I die!” she told The Guardian in 2019.

Funk also took part in a privately-funded program to prove her readiness for spaceflight. The Woman in Space program was funded by William Randolph Lovelace, who worked on NASA’s Mercury program.

The program was also known as the “Mercury 13,” a reference to the Mercury Seven group of men that flew to space. The goal was to see whether women had the same abilities as men to go to space. A Netflix documentary, Mercury 13, noted that the data showed the women in fact performed better than the men.

The colloquial name was criticized by Margaret Weitekamp, a historian at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in a 2018 interview with The Verge. Weitekamp explained that the term, created by a television producer, “confuses the history” by suggesting that the group was affiliated with NASA in some way.

The program was canceled before another phase of testing was carried out, and Funk never went to space. In 2019, she told The Guardian that the cancellation was “not going to stop me [...] things were canceled? So what?”

But Funk didn’t give up on the idea of going to space. In 2010, she bought a $200,000 ticket to fly on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceship.

It seems Funk will go to space before she gets to use that ticket.

Blue Origin passenger flight: who is flying on the first mission?

The first mission on July 20 will feature four passengers:

  1. Jeff Bezos.
  2. His brother Mark.
  3. Wally Funk.
  4. The winner of a $28 million auction, which ended on June 12. The winner has yet to be announced.

The four will fly on a New Shepard rocket taking off from the firm’s West Texas launch facility. A capsule will fly past the Kármán line, located around 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, taking the passengers past the official boundary of space. It will then return to Earth, with the total flight lasting around 10 minutes.

It will mark the first of what Blue Origin hopes will be a new era of private space tourism, and Funk looks set to be one of its pioneers.

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