Wally Has Fought For 60 Years To Go To Space — Now, At Age 82, She's Getting Her Chance
Last week, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos made headlines when he announced that 82-year-old Wally Funk will be a passenger on the inaugural crewed voyage of his New Shepard spacecraft. When I got the news, I screamed, picked up my phone, and left Funk an embarrassingly blubbering voicemail. “I’m so happy for you,” I sobbed. “Wally, you deserve this. You’ve earned this.”
Funk has been fighting for this moment since 1961, when she underwent preliminary astronaut testing under the direction of a NASA-affiliated physician. The story is complicated and incredible, but I’ll give you a quick rundown of the most important points: Back in the first days of crewed spaceflight, NASA astronauts had to be elite pilots who could make it through a rigorous medical and psychological screening program. In 1959, seven pilots did just that and were selected to become the nation’s pioneering astronauts. They were white, handsome, and of course, they were men.
The doctor who supervised NASA’s astronaut testing program then ran a group of elite female aviators through some of the same tests to see how they’d fare. The women’s tests were not sponsored by NASA. They were privately funded. But they were important nonetheless, as they’d give scientists some good data on how women flyers might compare to men.
In all, nineteen brave women underwent testing. Thirteen of them—including Funk—performed exceptionally well on those tests, and for a brief, magnificent moment, it looked like they might enjoy careers in spaceflight. Then NASA got wind of their efforts and shut the whole thing down before the women could get anywhere close to a rocket. It was frustrating and tragic, and enough to stop most people in their tracks.
But not Funk. She applied to become a NASA astronaut several times, receiving a firm rejection each time. This didn’t slow her down. She pursued any avenue for spaceflight she could find, training at Russia’s Star City and investing in Virgin Galactic. She was a steamroller of spaceflight energy and enthusiasm.
As impressive as this backstory is, it’s not the only thing I want you to tell your kids about Wally Funk. Here’s the other part they should know: While Funk was chasing her dream of spaceflight, she also managed to cultivate a wonderful life here on earth. Aviation has always been her passion and so she leaned into it. She crafted a huge, wonderful career out of teaching 3,000 people to fly. She was a pioneer in women’s aviation, becoming one of the first women accident investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board and the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Authority. She gave countless inspirational speeches to school kids and Girl Scout troops. And all the while, she did what she loved. She flew airplanes. Today, her flight log boasts a jaw dropping 19,600 hours and her passion is infectious. In fact, she even managed to talk me—an anxious, risk averse writer—into taking flight lessons of my own.
The fact that Funk is finally going to space is so magical that it makes my heart ache. It’s the happy ending she deserves. But our kids are used to happy endings. They encounter them in most of the movies they watch. They’re ready for the resolution that comes just before the final score and credits. It’s expected, and predictable, and oh-so-satisfying. In real life, though, that’s not what usually happens. Real people encounter bumps in the road. They adapt to disappointment, make new plans, and move forward. They do the hard work required to find joy in the plan Bs. And that’s what Funk did so well. Her plan B was so rich and full that it couldn’t be soured by decades of rejection.
Isn’t that a lesson all of our kids could learn? Chasing a passion might not take them to the exact place they think it will, but it will certainly open doors to marvelous, unexpected, adventurous lives. Perhaps it’s time to adapt that old adage: Shoot for the moon, kids. Because even if you miss, you might wind up absolutely loving your job at the FAA.
Bezos’s choice to include a white-haired octogenarian on his upcoming flight rights some very old wrongs. But he’s not giving Funk some Disney-esque happy ending; she did that for herself years ago. He’s just giving her the chance to enjoy a few minutes of zero-G.