Wally Funk’s Journey to Space

In 1995, seven of the Mercury 13 met at Kennedy Space Center to see Space Shuttle Discovery. Wally is second from the left.

Wally Funk was the first female Federal Aviation Agency Inspector, first female Air Safety Investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, and flight instructor for over 3,000 students. She was also one of the Mercury 13, a group of women who underwent screening tests at the same time as the Mercury Seven astronauts. While Wally never flew as an astronaut, Blue Origin recently announced that Wally is joining their upcoming rocket launch on July 20.

Born in 1939 in New Mexico, Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk became interested in flying as a young girl. She made model airplanes from balsa wood at age seven and took her first flying lesson at age nine. While in high school, Wally wanted to take mechanic courses. Since she was a girl, she was told she could not. Wally eventually left high school at age sixteen and enrolled in Stephens College in Missouri. She graduated in 1958 with her pilot’s license. She furthered her aviation experience at Oklahoma State University where she earned multiple flight instruction ratings and graduated with a degree in secondary education.

At the age of 20, Wally began working as a Civilian Flight Instructor at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. She was the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base. She soon accepted a new job as a Certified Flight Instructor, Charter, and Chief Pilot with an aviation company in California. She applied for positions as a commercial airline pilot throughout her career but was denied because of her gender.

Wally volunteered for the “Women in Space” program in 1961 and was chosen as a female astronaut candidate. Wally was the youngest of the group at age 22. She underwent physical and mental training and was ranked third among the thirteen female candidates. Despite the Mercury 13’s high performance, the program was terminated. Wally continued pursuing her dream of going to space, applying four times when NASA began training female astronauts in the late 1970s. Despite her impressive credentials, she was denied for lack of an engineering degree or background as a test pilot.

Wally became the first woman to complete the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course in 1971. She was later hired by the National Transportation Safety Board as its first female Air Safety Investigator. Wally also participated in many air races, winning the Pacific Air Race in 1975. She continued working in flight safety and as an instructor until her retirement in 1985. At that time, she was appointed an FAA Safety Counselor and began speaking around the country on aviation safety. She was appointed Chief Pilot at Emery Aviation College in Colorado in 1987. Throughout her career, Wally taught more than 3,000 Private, Commercial, Multi-engine, Seaplane, Glider, Instrument, CFI, Al, and Air Transport Pilots.

On July 1, 2021, Blue Origin announced that Wally will fly on the first crewed flight of New Shepard, a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing launch vehicle. This vehicle is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to launch into space in 1961. On July 20, Wally will fulfill her dream of launching into space as an astronaut sixty years after she first began training. She will set yet another record, becoming the oldest person ever to fly to space at age 82. In Wally’s own words, “Finally!”