Wally Funk

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Wally Funk
Wally Funk 2012.jpg
Funk in 2012
Born (1939-02-01) February 1, 1939 (age 83)
Alma materStephens College Oklahoma State University
Known forFirst female FAA and NTSB inspector; one of the Mercury 13; oldest woman to fly in space.
Space career
Commercial Astronaut
US - FAA Astronaut Wings version 2.png
Flight time
10m 18s
SelectionBlue Origin

Mary Wallace Funk (born February 1, 1939) is an American aviator, commercial astronaut,[1][2] and Goodwill Ambassador. She was the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the first female civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the first female Federal Aviation Agency inspector, as well as one of the Mercury 13.[3][4]

Funk became the oldest person to go to space on July 20, 2021 at age 82, flying on Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft during its suborbital flight, breaking a record held by John Glenn for 23 years.[5] Her record would stand until later that year when William Shatner's flight took place on October 13; Shatner was age 90 at the time. Funk continues to hold the record for the oldest woman to travel to space.

Together with Gene Nora Jessen, Funk is one of the last two surviving members of the Mercury 13 group.[6] She is also the only one of the thirteen to have traveled to space.

Early life[edit]

Funk was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1939[7] and grew up in Taos, New Mexico. Her parents owned a variety store. The family had a collection of artwork from artists at the Taos art colony, as the artists would trade artwork to pay off their debt at the store.[3]

As a child, Funk was captivated by planes. When she was one year old, her parents took her to an airport near where they lived in New Mexico and she got up close to a Douglas DC-3, an early airliner. "I go right to the wheel and I try to turn the nut," she says. "Mother said: 'She’s going to fly.'"[4][8] She became interested in mechanics and built model airplanes and ships.[9] By the time she was seven, she was making planes from balsa wood.[4] At nine, she had her first flying lesson.[4]

Funk was also an accomplished outdoorswoman, spending time riding her bike or her horse, skiing, hunting, and fishing.[4] At age 14, she became an expert marksman, receiving the Distinguished Rifleman's Award.[9] The National Rifle Association sent her incredible shooting results to the president, Dwight Eisenhower, and he wrote back to her.[4] At the same time she represented the southwestern United States as Top Female Skier, Slalom and Downhill races in United States competition.[9]

Education and flight school[edit]

As a high school student, Funk wanted to take courses such as mechanical drawing and auto mechanics, but because she was a girl, she was permitted to take only courses such as home economics.[10] Frustrated, Funk left high school early at the age of 16 and entered Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.[8] Funk became a member of the "Flying Susies" and rated first in her class of 24 fliers.[10] She graduated in 1958 with her pilot's license and an Associate of Arts degree.[9]

Funk moved on to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary Education at Oklahoma State University. While at OSU, Funk was a member of Alpha Chi Omega, Gamma Epsilon chapter.[11] Funk was drawn to OSU primarily by its famous "Flying Aggies" program.[4] At OSU, Funk earned a large number of aviation certificates and ratings, including her Commercial, Single-engine Land, Multi-engine Land, Single-engine Sea, Instrument, Flight Instructor's, and all Ground Instructor's ratings. Funk was elected as an officer of the "Flying Aggies" and flew for them in the International Collegiate Air Meets. She received the "Outstanding Female Pilot" trophy, the "Flying Aggie Top Pilot" and the "Alfred Alder Memorial Trophy" two years in succession.[9]

Aviation career[edit]

At 20 years old, Funk became a professional aviator.[12] Her first job was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a Civilian Flight Instructor of noncommissioned and commissioned officers of the United States Army.[9] Funk was the first female flight instructor at a US military base.[3][4] In the fall of 1961, she accepted a job as a Certified Flight Instructor, Charter, and Chief Pilot with an aviation company in Hawthorne, California.[9][13]

Funk earned her Airline Transport Rating in 1968, the 58th woman in the U.S. to do so.[9][14] She applied to three commercial airlines but, like other qualified female pilots, was turned away because of her sex.[14]

In 1971, Funk earned the rating of flight inspector from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), becoming the first woman to complete the FAA's General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course, which includes Pilot Certification and Flight Testing procedures, handling accidents, and violations.[12][15] She worked for four years with the FAA as a field examiner, the first woman to do so. In 1973 she was promoted to FAA SWAP (Systems Worthiness Analysis Program) as a specialist, the first woman in the United States to hold this position. In late November 1973, Wally again entered the FAA Academy to take courses involving air-taxi, charter, and aviation rental businesses.[9]

In 1974, Funk was hired by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as its first female Air Safety Investigator.[12] Funk investigated 450 accidents, ranging from a probable mob hit to a fatal crash at a mortuary.[13] She made the discovery that people who die in small-plane crashes often have their jewelry, shoes, and clothes stripped off by the impact.[3]

Concurrently, Funk participated in many air races.[13][14] She placed eighth in the Powder Puff Derby's 25th Annual Race, sixth in the Pacific Air Race, and eighth in the Palms to Pines Air Race. On August 16, 1975, she placed second in the Palms to Pines All Women Air Race from Santa Monica, California, to Independence, Oregon. On October 4, 1975, flying her red and white Citabria, Wally won the Pacific Air Race from San Diego, California, to Santa Rosa, California, against 80 participating competitors.[9]

Funk retired from her post as an Air Safety Investigator in 1985 after serving for 11 years.[15][13] Funk was then appointed an FAA Safety Counselor and became a renowned pilot trainer and speaker on aviation safety.[9] In 1986, she was the key speaker for the US at The World Aviation Education and Safety Congress.[9] In 1987, Funk was appointed Chief Pilot at Emery Aviation College, Greeley, Colorado, overseeing the entire flight programs for 100 students from Private to Multi-engine flight Instructor and Helicopter ratings.

Funk has been chief pilot for five aviation schools across the country.[15] To date, as a professional Flight Instructor she has soloed more than 700 students and put through 3,000 Private, Commercial, Multi-engine, Seaplane, Glider, Instrument, CFI, Al, and Air Transport Pilots.[9]

Space career[edit]

Mercury 13[edit]

In February 1961, Funk volunteered for the "Women in Space" Program. The program was run by William Randolph Lovelace, although it lacked official government sponsorship. Funk contacted Lovelace, detailing her experience and achievements. Despite being younger than the recruiting age range of 25–40, Funk was invited to take part.[4] Twenty-five women were invited, nineteen enrolled, and thirteen graduated, including Funk, who at 21 was the youngest. On some tests, she scored better than John Glenn.[3] The media dubbed the group the "Mercury 13", a reference to the Mercury 7.[16]

Like the other participants in the program, Funk was put through rigorous physical and mental testing. In one test, volunteers were placed in sensory deprivation tanks. Funk was in the tank, without hallucinating, for 10 hours and 35 minutes, a record. She passed her tests and was qualified to go into space. Her score was the third best in the Mercury 13 program. Despite this, the program was canceled before the women were to undergo their last test.[12]

After the Mercury 13 program was canceled, Funk became a Goodwill Ambassador.[citation needed]

Later career[edit]

Funk continued to dream of going to space. When NASA finally began accepting women in the late 1970s, Funk applied three times. Despite her impressive credentials, she was turned down for not having an engineering degree or a background as a test pilot.[14][17]

In 1995, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a Space Shuttle into space; Funk was too old to qualify to become a Space Shuttle pilot by the time Collins became one.[3] Funk and six other members of the Mercury 13 were invited guests of Collins at the launch, and NASA gave them a behind-the-scenes VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Center complex.[9]

In 2012, she put money down to be one of the first people to fly into space via Virgin Galactic. The money for the flight came from Funk's own book and film royalties and family money.[3]

In July 2020 Funk published a memoir, Higher Faster Longer – My Life in Aviation and My Quest for Space Flight with author Loretta Hall.[18]

2021 suborbital space flight[edit]

On July 1, 2021, Blue Origin announced Funk would fly on the first New Shepard flight with passengers, one of four on the flight, including Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen from the Netherlands, who became the youngest ever person in space during the flight of July 20, 2021.[5][19][20] During the successful flight Funk, at age 82, became the oldest person to fly to space, exceeding John Glenn's record at the age of 77 in 1998 (aboard STS-95).[21][22][5] Her record would be surpassed later that year by William Shatner, who flew aboard Blue Origin NS-18 at the age of 90.[23]

Personal life[edit]

Funk currently lives in Grapevine, Texas.[24] She enjoys sports and restoring antique automobiles, with a collection that includes a 1951 Hooper Silver Wraith.[9]

She has over 18,600 flight hours[3] and as of June 2019 still flew each Saturday as an instructor.[4]

Popular culture[edit]

  • The Flight of Wally Funk is a 2001 album by Australian rock band Spiderbait. It peaked at number 34 on the ARIA charts.[25][circular reference]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • In 1964, Funk became the youngest woman in the history of Stephens College to receive the Alumna Achievement Award, honored in recognition for her work in aviation.[10]
  • In 1965, Funk was selected as one of the Outstanding Young Women in America, "in recognition of her outstanding ability, accomplishments and service to her community, country and profession".[9]
  • In 2012, filmed her life story for the Traveling Space Museum.[3]
  • In 2017, Wally Funk's name was inscribed on the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's Wall of Honor "in recognition of your contribution to our aviation and exploration heritage".
  • In 2022, Funk was awarded the R.A."Bob" Hoover trophy by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association,[26] for exhibiting “the airmanship, leadership, mentorship, and passion for aviation” that Hoover exemplified, as well as for having a “distinguished career as a pilot and aviation advocate while also serving as a source of inspiration and encouragement for current and prospective aviators.”

Also in 2022, The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum awarded its Michael Collins Trophy to Funk for Lifetime Achievement.

  • Funk is listed in "Who's Who in Aviation".[9]


  1. ^ Fisher, Kristin (December 10, 2021). "First on CNN: The US gives Bezos, Branson and Shatner their astronaut wings". CNN. Retrieved December 10, 2021. The US government is making it official, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and William Shatner have earned the title of astronaut after their flights to the edge of space. The Federal Aviation Administration will also award Commercial Space Astronaut Wings to 12 other people who have flown at least 50 miles above Earth on a FAA licensed commercial spacecraft, including the crew of SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission. The FAA will award wings to eight people who flew on Blue Origin's New Shepherd spacecraft, three who flew on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, and to the four members of the SpaceX crew who spent three days in space in September.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. ^ "FAA Commercial Human Spaceflight Recognition". Retrieved December 10, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Stolley, Richard B. (April 18, 2012). "Woman in Space: The Long-Delayed Flight of Wally Funk". TIME. Retrieved June 16, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Saner, Emine (June 24, 2019). "'I'll be flying till I die!' Why Wally Funk won't give up her lifelong space mission". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c Foust, Jeff (July 20, 2021). "Blue Origin launches Bezos on first crewed New Shepard flight". SpaceNews. Retrieved July 20, 2021.
  6. ^ "Longtime friend of Wally Funk recalls trailblazer's dream of space flight".
  7. ^ "Who's Who in Aviation". Harwood & Charles Publishing Company. October 13, 1973 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ a b Wilde, George (June 20, 2019). "Wally Funk: the woman cheated out of space by gender politics". Huck Mag. Retrieved July 22, 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q "Advancing Women Pilots | Women Pilots Today | Wally Funk". The Ninety-Nines, Inc. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  10. ^ a b c Hackel, Karee. "Female aviation pioneer to share her fervor for flight at Stephens College". Columbia Missourian. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  11. ^ "Alpha Chi Omega".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  12. ^ a b c d "Wally Funk". Women Aviators. Archived from the original on September 2, 2011. Retrieved June 16, 2013.
  13. ^ a b c d Lerner, Preston (January 18, 2004). "The Unlaunchable Wally Funk". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 23, 2019.
  14. ^ a b c d Varnum, Janet (Fall 2009). "Wally Funk: still ready for space travel" (PDF). State Magazine. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 31, 2016. Retrieved July 23, 2019.
  15. ^ a b c Romo, Rene. "Her Dream of Spaceflight: Female Aviation Pioneer Wally Funk Has A Ticket and Awaits a Ride to Space" (PDF). Journal Southern Bureau. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 9, 2020. Retrieved July 23, 2019.
  16. ^ Butler, Carol L. "Wally Funk Oral History Interview". C-SPAN. Retrieved June 16, 2013.
  17. ^ ‘Best Day Ever’: Highlights From Bezos and Blue Origin Crew’s Short Flight to Space, New York Times, July 20, 2021. Retrieved July 20, 2021.
  18. ^ "Book Review: Higher Faster Longer - National Space Society". National Space Society. February 7, 2021. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  19. ^ "Wally Funk will fly to space on New Shepard's first human flight". Blue Origin. Retrieved July 1, 2021.
  20. ^ Koren, Marina (July 15, 2021). "Jeff Bezos Has Picked an Unusual Space Crew". The Atlantic.
  21. ^ The Editors. "John Glenn returns to space". History.com. Retrieved July 1, 2021. {{cite web}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  22. ^ Machemer, Theresa. "Trailblazing Pilot Wally Funk Will Go to Space 60 Years After Passing Her Astronaut Tests". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved July 20, 2021.
  23. ^ Dunn, Marcia; Taber, Rick (October 13, 2021). "William Shatner, TV's Capt. Kirk, blasts into space". Associated Press. Retrieved October 14, 2021.
  24. ^ Anna, Caplan (July 19, 2021). "Five things to know about Grapevine's Wally Funk, who will fly into space with Jeff Bezos on Tuesday". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved July 20, 2021.
  25. ^ 2001 Spiderbait album
  26. ^ O'Connor, Kate (March 24, 2022). "Wally Funk Receives Bob Hoover Trophy - AVweb". AVweb. Retrieved March 28, 2022.

External links[edit]