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Meet Wally Funk, the Mercury 13 aviation pioneer (finally) going to space

The ‘Mercury 13′ underwent astronaut tests, but ultimately, NASA never selected them to fly

When Blue Origin founder CEO Jeff Bezos revealed Wally Funk, an aviation pioneer and among the women known as the Mercury 13, would fly with him on the first crewed flight of the company’s spacecraft, it was a moment that many feel rights a wrong from decades ago.

Funk, now a very fit 82-year-old, was among a group of 13 women pilots in the 1960s who partook in a set of physical and psychological tests led by NASA scientist Dr. William Randolph Lovelace. They were known as the First Lady Astronaut Trainees and later dubbed the Mercury 13. But while Lovelace did work for NASA, helping to test the first men to fly in space, this off-book program was never part of the space program.

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“The reason none of the Mercury 13 went into space (was) because it was the wrong time and the wrong place in history. In the early ’60s, most women in the United States were, if they had a job, were secretaries, teachers, traditional -- what were considered traditional jobs, and even the fact that they were pilots made them unusual for their day,” said Sue Nelson, the author of “Wally Funk’s Race for Space.”

While the women proved they could withstand the same tests the Mercury 7 astronauts did, not a single member of the all-female group ever achieved spaceflight, until now.

Blue Origin announced Thursday that Funk will fly on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard rocket and space capsule along with Bezos, his brother and a winning bidder on July 20.

There might be no one better to help tell Funk’s story than Nelson, a longtime journalist and author. She first learned about the Mercury 13 after reading a few lines about the women in The New York Times.

“I make a lot of radio programs for the BBC, that specialize in women and the role of women in history, particularly in science and space. And I’ve never heard of the Mercury 13 then, so that sort of set me on a bit of a mission,” she said.

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In this 1995 file photo, members of the FLATs, also known as the Mercury 13, gather for a photo as they attend a shuttle launch in Florida. From left are Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos has chosen Funk, an early female aerospace pioneer, to rocket into space with him later this month. The company announced Thursday, July 1, 2021, that Funk will be aboard the July 20 launch from West Texas, flying as an honored guest. Funk, along with the other women of Mercury 13, went through astronaut training in the 1960s, but never made it to space -- or even NASA's astronaut corps -- because of their gender. (NASA via AP) (NASA)

That curiosity sent her on a journey to meet as many of the surviving Mercury 13 members as possible, and eventually write her book on the youngest member of the group, Funk. The two women have now been friends for more than two decades, and remain close.

Asked to describe the now-82-year-old pilot and engineer, Nelson said, in a way, “she’s indescribable.”

“She’s one of a kind ... She’s the most exuberant woman you could ever meet. She won’t stop talking,” Nelson said. “She loves to laugh. She loves to chat. She loves to learn new things (and) find new things out.”

Despite being told “no” time and time again to become an astronaut, Funk has continued to fly and has trained thousands of pilots, and has logged more than 19,000 flying hours.

“I didn’t think I would ever get to go up,” Funk said in the video posted by Bezos. “Nothing has ever gotten in my way, and they said, ‘Wally, you’re a girl. You can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Guess what? It doesn’t matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it.’”

According to Nelson, Funk actually thought she would achieve active spaceflight through another private company, Virgin Galactic, founded by billionaire Richard Branson. Funk previously purchased a ticket to fly on SpaceShipTwo, but has waited for years for the company to be ready to fly paying customers. So when she learned of the offer from yet another billionaire, she was very surprised.

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Journalist Sue Belson and pilot Wally Funk, of the Mercury 13, in Cocoa Beach, Fla. (Image courtesy: Sue Nelson) (WKMG 2021)

“Her most likely chance has been for years with Virgin Galactic. She got a ticket. She’s ready to go,” Nelson said. “And so for this to come out of the blue, from Jeff Bezos Blue Origin -- apart from being a rather, sort of, ‘My rocket’s bigger than your rocket’ one-upmanship there -- it’s an extraordinarily generous thing to do to make a woman’s dream come true.”

Funk and the winning bidder who paid $28 million will join the Bezos brothers launching in New Shepard’s capsule from West Texas on July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It will be the first crewed flight for the capsule, which has previously launched to the edge of space and landed 15 times.

Nelson expects it will be an emotional day, watching her friend finally achieve her dream.

“It’s making a statement. And it couldn’t be a better statement, really,” she said of picking the historic date. “The first men on the moon -- the women were denied that opportunity. Look at it over 50 years later, you know, no woman has set foot on the moon. And while this may not be a woman going to the moon, this is definitely one big step for womenkind to see somebody like Wally finally get into space.”

When Bezos asked Funk what she will say after her 10-minute spaceflight, she responded, “Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me,” before embracing him in a bear hug.

Funk is ready to fly, finally.