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Wally Funk, A Lifelong Aspiring Astronaut, Will Finally Head To Space At 82

Jul 9, 2021
Originally published on July 9, 2021 10:34 am

Wally Funk has been hoping for a long time to go to space. Later this month, the 82-year-old pilot and flight instructor will finally head there.

In 1961, Funk was among a group of female pilots testing whether women were fit for space travel. They became known as the Mercury 13, and they passed many of the same tests as the men. But the program was canceled, and Funk was never accepted by NASA.

On July 20, she'll join the crew on Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. She's expected to break John Glenn's record as the oldest person to reach space.

In this 2019 NASA photo, Mercury 13 astronaut trainee Wally Funk visits the Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Cleveland, Ohio.
AP

Cheering Funk on at the West Texas launch is her friend and former flight student, Mary Holsenbeck. The two visited StoryCorps in Dallas in 2017, where Funk described the tests she took for the Mercury 13 program.

"I had needles stuck on every part of my body. Tubes running up my bottom. So I went along with it. It didn't bother me," Funk told Holsenbeck. "And then they said, 'We want you to come with a swimsuit; you're going to go into the isolation tank.' Well, I didn't know what that was. The lights come down, they said try not to move. Well, I didn't have a whole lot to think about. I'm 20, I had $10 in my pocket. And then finally they said: 'Wally, you were outstanding. You stayed in 10 hours and 35 minutes. You did the best of the guys that we've had and of the girls.' "

But then she was notified by telegram that the program had been shut down. She said she didn't pine. She applied to NASA four times, though she got turned down, she said, because she didn't have an engineering degree.

She made clear then that she had not given up on space.

I never let anything stop me. I know that my body and my mind can take anything that any space outfit wants to give me. - Wally Funk in 2017

"I never let anything stop me," she said. "I know that my body and my mind can take anything that any space outfit wants to give me — high altitude chamber test, which is fine; centrifuge test, which I know I can do five and six G's. These things are easy for me."

Holsenbeck called Funk "the most fearless person" she's ever known and remembered how, when she was going through a divorce, her friend and mentor saved her life.

Wally Funk (left) and her friend and flight student, Mary Holsenbeck, circa 1993.
Mary Holsenbeck

"You said, 'Mary, let's go flying' and I said, 'Wally, I can't afford to go flying.' And you said, 'I didn't ask you that — meet me at the airport,' " Holsenbeck said. They went flying, and Funk told her to point the nose of the airplane toward a cloud and then fly to it.

"And it was the most freeing feeling," Holsenbeck says. "I felt like I was in charge of something when I was in that airplane, and that helped me to put myself back in charge of my own life. So yeah, you fixed the problem."

For years — to this day — the two women talk every evening at 10 p.m., telling one another about their days. They call it their 10 o'clock flight.

"So we go up into the clouds together because Wally, you've always told me, 'When you have problems? Go to the clouds.' "

Audio produced for Morning Edition by John White. NPR's Heidi Glenn adapted it for the web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's time now for StoryCorps. Today, we'll hear from Wally Funk. She spent her whole life trying to go to space. In 1961, she was among a group of female pilots testing whether women were fit for space travel. They became known as the Mercury 13. The women passed many of the same tests as the men. But the program was canceled, and Wally was never accepted by NASA. At StoryCorps, she spoke with her flight student Mary Holsenbeck.

WALLY FUNK: I get a call - said, do you want to be an astronaut? I said, oh, my gosh, yes. And he said, be here on Monday to take these tests. I had needles stuck in every part of my body, tubes running up my bottom, so I went along with it. It didn't bother me. And then they said, we want you to come with a swimsuit. You're going to go into the isolation tank. Well, I didn't know what that was. The lights come down. They said, try not to move. Well, I didn't have a whole lot to think about. I'm 20. I had $10 in my pocket. And then finally, they said, Wally, you were outstanding. You stayed in 10 hours and 35 minutes. You did the best of the guys that we've had and of the girls.

MARY HOLSENBECK: So Wally, you went through all of these tests only to find out that the program had been shut down.

FUNK: Affirmative. When we got the telegram, that was it. And I never heard anything more. So I went on about my own business. I'm not going to sit back and pine over anything. I applied to NASA four times. And finally, they said, Wally, you know, we're sorry, but you don't have an engineering degree. I said, well, I'll get one. So I never let anything stop me. I know that my body and my mind can take anything that any space outfit wants to give me. High altitude chamber test, which is fine, centrifuge test, which I know I can do five and six Gs - these things are easy for me.

HOLSENBECK: I know that when it's your time to go up, I'm going to be right there cheering you on. You are probably the most fearless person I've ever known in my life.

FUNK: (Laughter).

HOLSENBECK: But I don't think you truly realize that you have been not only my hero but my mentor. I went through a very nasty divorce, and you made a phone call at the right time one afternoon that saved my life. You said, Mary, let's go flying. I said, Wally, I can't afford to go flying. You said, I didn't ask you that. Meet me at the airport.

And taking me flying, you would pick out a cloud, and you'd say, Mary, you see that cloud up there? I said, yes, ma'am. You said, point the nose of this airplane toward that cloud, and just fly to it. And it was the most freeing feeling. I felt like I was in charge of something when I was in that airplane, and that helped me to put myself back in charge of my own life. So yeah, you fixed the problem.

Every night at 10 o'clock, you and I, we'll call each other, and we discuss our day, what went well, what didn't go well. And we call it our 10 o'clock flight.

FUNK: (Laughter).

HOLSENBECK: So we go up into the clouds together because, Wally, you've always told me when you have problems, go to the clouds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: That's Mary Holsenbeck with her flight instructor Wally Funk for StoryCorps in Dallas. And later this month, Wally's finally going to space. At 82, she's joining the crew on the New Shepard rocket. She's expected to break John Glenn's record as the oldest person to reach space. And Mary will, in fact, be right there at the launch cheering Wally on. Their conversation is archived at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.