Is this the next step in humanity’s unstoppable drive toward exploration? Is “space tourism” a long shot speculative venture destined to run up against the implacable economics of ridiculous extravagance? Or have the unimaginably rich merely exhausted all the ways to satisfy their ambitions here on Earth? We all have the right to own opinions, if not to have others take them seriously.
But it’s a good bet that not many pilots disagreed with Jeff Bezos’ choice of Wally Funk to fill a seat on his New Shepard craft’s inaugural passenger flight. You’d be hard-pressed to make the argument that she isn’t the quintessential aviator’s aviator—or richly deserves the ride she earned more than 60 years ago.
Any reader who hasn’t spent the last six months in a cave has probably heard that Funk was the youngest of the Mercury 13, accomplished female pilots who back in 1961 passed the same physical tests given to male candidates as part of a privately funded research study to assess women’s ability to become astronauts. In fact, she was admitted into the program at age 21 despite its nominal minimum age of 25. By that time she’d already been flying professionally for two years, having become the first female flight instructor at Fort Sill in Oklahoma at age 20.
As historian Margaret Weitekamp put it, “On a very basic level, it never occurred to American decision makers to seriously consider a woman astronaut.”Those who’ve followed the story also know that none of the Mercury 13 were ever accepted into astronaut training despite performances that often outdid those of their male counterparts. Funk, for example, spent a record 10 hours 35 minutes in the sensory deprivation tank. (John Glenn’s sensory deprivation test, by comparison, was three hours in a dimly lit room with the aid of pen and paper.) As historian Margaret Weitekamp put it, “On a very basic level, it never occurred to American decision makers to seriously consider a woman astronaut.” Funk was preparing to travel to Pensacola for further testing when the program was abruptly canceled: The Navy wouldn’t authorize the use of its facilities without an official request from NASA.
What’s less widely known is that Funk’s accomplishments aren’t limited to aviation. She was recognized as an expert marksman at age 14, winning congratulations from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and at the same time was a top national competitor in slalom and downhill skiing. Her determination is ferocious. Turned town by three airlines after earning her airline transport rating, she became the FAA’s first female flight inspector and then the NTSB’s first female air safety investigator, probing the causes of some 450 accidents in 11 years, all while continuing to instruct. NASA finally began training women astronauts nearly 20 years after Funk underwent testing but rejected her for not having an engineering degree. Reportedly, she replied, “Well, I’ll get one!”
So feel free to question the propriety of private rocket flights—but if anyone deserved a ride in one, it was Wally Funk.