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Wally Funk

The 82-year-old who’s off to space

Reuters/Elizabeth Culliford

On 20 July Jeff Bezos will head into space with three people: his brother, Mark; a mystery bidder who spent $28m on a ticket; and an 82-year-old American woman called Wally Funk. In an Instagram video, the Amazon founder asked Funk how she would feel to leave the planet. She threw her arms around him and squealed: “I would say, ‘Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me!’”

Funk has been trying to go to space for 60 years, says Sebastian Kettley in The Express. Born Mary Wallace Funk, she was always obsessed with flying. At five she leapt off a barn in a Superman costume and fell into a haystack. At seven she made toy planes with wood. She had her first flying lesson aged nine and got her pilot’s licence while she was still a teenager. Her parents didn’t care what she did, so long as she was home, washed and wearing a dress every night for dinner.

In 1961, the 22-year-old Funk was accepted by the Woman in Space Program – a Nasa-supported experiment to see if women could handle space. She was the youngest and best volunteer, says Marina Koren in The Atlantic. In one test, candidates floated inside a tank of water in a dark, soundproofed room. Most lasted a few hours before hallucinating. Some male astronauts made it to three. Funk emerged 10 hours 35 minutes later, “not because she was done, but because the doctor administering the test decided it might be time to pull her out”.

The Woman in Space Program was cancelled in 1962, and it would be 20 years before an American woman was deemed fit for space travel. But that didn’t deter Funk. “Things were cancelled? So what? Wally’s going on,” she told The Guardian in 2019. She taught flying and travelled the world in a van with her pet poodle and chipmunk. In 2010 she bought a $200,000 ticket for Richard Branson’s space mission, Virgin Galactic. She hasn’t been able to use that, but she has never given up on her dream: “I will get up there somehow.”