Meet the 82-year-old Wally Fun

Image: AFP/Mark Ralston/Getty Images.

Meet the 82-year-old Wally Funk, the oldest person to go to space

Wally Funk has spent the past 60 years trying to find a way into space after the Woman in Space Programme was shut down in 1961.

Meet the 82-year-old Wally Fun

Image: AFP/Mark Ralston/Getty Images.

Mary Mary Wallace ‘Wally’ Funk is set to become the oldest person to ever go to space on 20 July 2021 at 15:00 (SAST).

The oldest person to go into space

2OceansVibe reports that the 82-year-old will join former Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos on the New Shepard rocket. Funk, who was born in Las Vegas and grew up in New Mexico, will also be joined by 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, who landed a spot at the last minute because the person who bid $28 million and won the auction has a “scheduling conflict”. Joes, Daemen’s father, was reportedly kind enough to pay for the seat and give it to his son.

The publication reports that the current record holder for the oldest person in space is John Glenn who flew in the Space Shuttle in 1998 when he was 77.

But, it is really Funk’s story that has gripped the world. According to The New York Times, her path to space arguably begins with a ski accident in 1956 that crushed two of her vertebrae. She was told she would never walk again. By age 17, she already had a history of greeting “you can’t” with defiant proof that she could. As she was recovering, a guidance counsellor suggested that she take aviation classes to distract her. In the book Promised the Moon by Stephanie Nolen, Funk said that during her first flight up, in a Cessna 172, “The bug bit and that was it.”

That year she soloed and had her pilot’s license at 17 and flew at every opportunity.

Woman in Space Programme

In 1961, Funk and 12 other women went through testing as part of the Woman in Space Programme. Unfortunately, none of those women went into space. The US government shut down the Woman in Space Programme just as the Cold War space race was heating up. While Valentina Tereshkova went to space for the Soviet Union in 1963, NASA would not fly an American woman to orbit until 1983.

When you hear about these women today, they are often called the Mercury 13, but they called themselves the FLATs: First Lady Astronaut Trainees. The story of the FLATs wasn’t widely known until fairly recently.

“Seeing her finally get to go into space decades after proving that she was not only capable, but perhaps more capable than the men she was essentially up against during the Mercury program is so incredible,” said Tanya Harrison, a planetary scientist and director of science strategy at Planet Labs.

“Her enthusiasm and attitude are positively infectious,” Harrison added, “and so I hope her flight into space gives her a renewed platform to inspire a whole new generation of girls to pursue space or aviation.”

Funk said that when she learned the programme was cancelled, she wasn’t discouraged.

Young and happy

“I was young and I was happy. I just believed it would come,” she said. “If not today, then in a couple of months.”

She applied to NASA twice in 1962 for the Gemini missions and again in 1966. Over the years, she applied four times to be an astronaut and was turned down because she had never gotten an engineering degree. 

“I was brought up that when things don’t work out, you go to your alternative,” she said.

Now, she will finally get her chance.

Watch Live: Jeff Bezos launch into space with Mary Wallace ‘Wally’ Funk