Wally Funk, a trailblazing female pilot denied the job of astronaut in the 1960s over her gender, will finally get the chance to fulfill her dreams of going into space.
Billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced Thursday on Instagram that Funk will be part of a four-person crew set to be launched into space by Blue Origin during a 10-minute flight on his rocket New Shepard later this month.
Funk, 82, will be the oldest person ever to travel into space, after the late John Glenn set the current record at age 77 while aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1998.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” Funk said in a video interview posted on the company’s website.
Funk was one of the “Mercury 13” pilots who volunteered in 1961 to be part of a program to get women to qualify for Nasa’s astronaut program, independently led by William Randolph Lovelace, head of Nasa’s committee on life science.
At 21, Funk graduated third in her class after undergoing rigorous physical and mental tests created by Lovelace.
“They told me I had done better or completed the work faster than any of the guys,” Funk said in Bezos’ video.
The program was abruptly cancelled when the federal government decided women shouldn’t be allowed to use the military facilities needed for space training. None of the women ever made it into space – but now, Funk has the opportunity to do so on 20 July.
“No one has waited longer,” said Bezos in his post, calling Funk an “honored guest”.
New Shepard was manufactured by Bezos’ company Blue Origin, and will carry Bezos, his brother Mark, and a yet-to-be-named passenger who paid $28m for their trip to space in an auction last month.
The passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and be able to marvel at the planet’s curvature through viewing windows before the pressurized passenger capsule returns to earth under parachutes.
Bezos, the richest man on the planet, is stepping down as the chief executive of Amazon on 5 July. He has been vying with fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Richard Branson to become the first to travel into space on a privately developed rocket.
Funk, a Texas resident, became the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration in 1971, and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board in 1974.
Funk said she has taught over 3,000 people to fly.
“I can’t tell people that are watching how fabulous I feel to be picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip,” she said. “You’re going to be an astronaut!” said an unnamed person in the video. “Finally,” replied Funk. “I can hardly wait.”