Taller, faster, longer. This motto kept Wally Funk going all her life, and finally led her to realize her lifelong dream: to go into space.
The first-rate female pilot has always dreamed of becoming an astronaut and was denied work in the 1960s because of her gender. All that will change Tuesday as she puts herself in a Blue Origin capsule and races into the cosmos.
The founder of billionaire Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos, with his brother, Mark Bezos, and Oliver Daemen, a student from the Netherlands, will surround the crew of four passengers on Blue Origin’s New Shepard racket during their first launch of equipment.
The rocket will depart from Texas in the United States at 8 a.m. (local time) (13:00 GMT). At 18, Daemen will be the youngest person to launch into space, and at 82, Funk will be the oldest.
Women in space
Funk’s obsession with aviation and aviation began decades ago.
As a child, she built balsa wood aircraft and even had her first flying lesson at the age of nine.
As a teenager, he obtained his pilot’s license from Stephens College before moving to Oklahoma State University, where he studied education and honed his skills.
At the university’s aviation club, called “Flying Aggies,” he routinely outscored the males.
“I could do all the maneuvers like the males, if not better,” Funk told Al Jazeera.
She continued to become a flight instructor. While working at a military base, she heard about an Air Force project to recruit women for the U.S. space program.
Managed by William Randolph Lovelace in the early 1960s, the Woman in Space program set out to see if women were able to treat spaceflight like men. Pilot Jerrie Cobb, who was part of the program, nominated his fellow First Lady Astronaut Trainees members.
Funk applied, and despite only being 22 years old (age requirements were technically 25 to 40), she was accepted.
He passed all the tests that launched him, including more than 10 hours in a sensory deprivation tank, surpassing the record set by Mercury astronaut John Glenn.
Despite the passage with colors, Funk was told that she would not be able to become an astronaut since the women’s program was canceled. That didn’t slow Funk down a bit.
“I’m not a quitter,” Funk said. “Have things been canceled?” Wally passes. I’m not a smoker. “
She repeatedly wrote to NASA to become an astronaut, but during that era, astronauts were mostly men and military pilots or engineers. Funk had studied education.
So she tried to go back to school to study engineering but said she was canceled because she was a woman.
Funk decided to continue pushing only the limits of what a woman could do in aviation.
“I took all the tests I could,” he said. “I even went to Russia and I took my cosmonaut tests and I beat all the males.”
Failure is not an option
Despite Funk’s success, the space was still out of reach. But stopping isn’t just in his vocabulary, so when a new era of commercial space flight began, he persevered.
She set an account for a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight a decade ago after its billionaire founder Richard Branson announced that it would one day bring tourists into space. I didn’t know if I would live to see the day happen, but I wanted the adventure anyway.
Then, in June, Funk received a call from another space billionaire – former Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. He invited her to fly on the inaugural flight of her New Shepard missile on July 20th.
Tuesday’s flight will last about 10 minutes in all, and for four of those minutes, Funk will experience breathtaking views of the Earth and experience fattening.
The capsule will then land under a parachute in the Texas desert, cementing Funk in the history books as the oldest person to fly into space and defeat astronaut John Glenn, who made the trip when he had 77 years old.
The need for more diversity
Funk’s perseverance story is nothing short of inspiring. Her struggle to be included as a woman, however, is one that has plagued NASA (and the aerospace industry in general) since its inception.
According to a report from the Zippia career platform, only 12.5 percent of American aerospace engineers are women, and that statistics haven’t really changed much over the previous decade.
Recently, the U.S. space agency has taken great steps to welcome more women and people of all backgrounds and ethnicities into its place.
Four of its centers in the United States are currently run by women – Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center and Glenn Research Center.
NASA’s deputy administrator is also a woman, as well as the head of human spaceflight.
As part of the agency’s Artemis moon program, NASA is committed to sending the first woman and the first person of color to the moon in the next few years. Those astronauts will board an Orion spacecraft built by the aerospace company Lockheed Martin, one of NASA’s main contractors.
Lockheed Martin recently opened a new production facility in Florida to help simplify the process and bring more aerospace jobs to the area. The company said more than 20 percent of its executives are women.
Kelly DeFazio, Orion’s production director for Lockheed Martin, said the company will add at least 40 jobs in Florida and hopes many of them will go to women.
“My dad was part of the Apollo program, so it’s really exciting to see the area grow again and us [as Lockheed Martin] I want to be a part of that, ”DeFazio told Al Jazeera.
In an office not too far away, Suba Iyer is working on NASA’s next massive rifle, the Launch System (SLS). As an Indian-American scientist, she saw the need for more diversity in the first person.
“I’m a mechanical engineer, and I don’t see a lot of women in my field, even today,” Iyer told Al Jazeera.
But after working in the aerospace industry for nearly 30 years on various programs, including the space shuttle and now SLS, Iyer said she sees it finally changing things.
“It’s amazing to be a part of this program,” he said.
“I have teenage boys, so they just see what happens and what I’m part of, and it makes a difference,” Iyer adds. “My kids are so proud of me.”
One benefit of the growing commercial space sector is that by working with more companies, NASA and others are learning new ways to think and innovate, and bringing in more diverse teams.
NASA and the National Science Foundation are also collaborating on an initiative to help attract people to the field from communities that are currently underrepresented in careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
And as long as the push to include a more diverse workforce continues, the United States seems ready to continue as a world leader in the space.