Meet Wally Funk, the 82-year-old female aviator on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin flight who’s finally going to space six decades after training for it

Wally Funk sitting on a chair and holding a photo
  • Wally Funk is one of three other passengers joining Jeff Bezos on Blue Origin’s suborbital space flight on Tuesday.
  • She was part of a group of female aviators known as Mercury 13 who trained for space in the 1960s.
  • The 82-year-old will break John Glenn’s record for being the oldest astronaut.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When Wally Funk joins Jeff Bezos on Blue Origin’s flight to the edge of space Tuesday, she will become the oldest-ever US astronaut, edging out John Glenn. Here’s a look at the career of the 82-year-old aviator.

Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1939. Her passion for aviation began early in life.

Wally Funk holds a helmet and stands by a US Air Force airplane

Funk started making model airplanes from balsa wood when she was seven years old and had her first flying lesson two years later, according to the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum.

Funk graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1960 with a degree in secondary education.

aviator Wally Funk behind a control panel

Soon after, she became the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base, Reuters reports

In 1961, Funk volunteered to join the Women in Space program, a group of female aviators undergoing testing and training in the hopes of becoming astronauts for the first human spaceflight program in the US.

several women, including Wally Funk, who were part of Mercury 13

The privately-funded program was backed by NASA, though the agency didn’t officially sponsor it. The group was called the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, or FLATs, but are perhaps better known by the name Mercury 13. Funk was the youngest among them.

The women underwent the same testing as their male counterparts, who were part of NASA’s Project Mercury, according to Reuters. 

The training was rigorous and consisted of several phases.

aviator Wally Funk floating upside-down in cosmonaut training in Russia

The first phase included 87 tests, ranging from “having to swallow three feet of rubber hose for a stomach test to having 18 needles stuck into your head to record brain waves, to drinking a pint of radioactive water,” according to the female pilots organization The Ninety-Nines.

The second phase consisted of psychological testing, including a sensory deprivation scenario, and the third phase included a test simulating the gravitational forces of a spaceflight’s lift-off and re-entry, according to The Ninety-Nines. 

In the end, all of the women were denied the chance to go to space through the program, which was shut down.

Wally Funk and two other women from Mercury 13 stand over a birthday cake with candles

All of their male peers, known as the Mercury Seven, went on to go to space.

But that didn’t stop Funk, who applied to NASA in the 1970s, when the agency started training female astronauts.

Wally Funk and a man stand near an airplane

The agency denied her all four times, which Funk attributes to the fact that she didn’t have an engineering degree, according to the Amelia Earhart museum.

Funk went on to become the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector, as well as the first female air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Wally Funk stands in front of a plane that reads Glenn Research Center

She has received the FAA Gold Seal and was one of the first 100 women to receive the Airline Transport Rating, according to the Ninety-Nines.

Throughout her career, she has accrued 19,600 flight hours and taught more than 3,000 students to fly, Funk said in an Instagram post.

She’ll set another record when she boards Blue Origin’s spaceflight on Tuesday.

Aviator Wally Funk gives a thumbs up surrounded by other hopeful space tourists

Funk will overtake former senator and NASA astronaut John Glenn as the oldest US astronaut. Glenn was 77 years old on his last mission.

Funk will be in the company of three other passengers onboard the New Shepard rocket, including Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.

Wally Funk sitting on a chair and holding a photo

Joining her are Blue Origin founder and former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, his younger brother Mark Bezos, and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen

Besides this trip, Funk hopes to board another spaceflight in the future, next time with Blue Origin rival Virgin Galactic.

Wally Funk and Richard Branson

In 2010, Funk reportedly put down $200,000 towards a seat onboard a Virgin Galactic flight. Her agent confirmed to Insider recently that Funk is “planning to fly with Virgin Galactic too.”

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