Woman in Space: The Long-Delayed Flight of Wally Funk

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Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal / AP

From left, then New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, Wally Funk and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin attend a dedication of the runway at Spaceport America in Upham, N.M., on Nov. 9. 2010

Wally Funk of Roanoke, Texas, is one of the 500 or so civilians from 50 countries around the world who want to visit outer space. She has written a check to Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company for the $200,000 ticket; others have put at least $20,000 down. She has twice visited Spaceport America in New Mexico, where they will take off and land, and has met both many of her fellow passengers and the blond billionaire who is their heavenly sponsor. Like the others, she is staying in shape for the medical exam that will precede the space flight.

Actor Ashton Kutcher is probably the best known so far of the potential passengers. But Funk is unlike the others in a different but critical way: not one of those 500 — man or woman, young or old — is better qualified for this adventure. Funk, who says she is "73 going on 45," is unique. She could have been the first American woman in space, having trained as an astronaut in a little-remembered program for women in the 1960s.

But way before that, she had been preparing. At the age of 5, she leaped off the family barn thinking her Superman costume would enable her to fly. Fortunately, she landed in a haystack. "I didn't understand gravity yet," she admits. At 16 she soloed, got her pilot's license and dedicated herself to aviation. From an early age, her parents told her, "Never be afraid."

She has racked up 18,600 hours (that's 775 days) in the air and has trained 2,000 pilots. She has won perilous, low-level airplane races. She made history three times as a female: the first civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, Okla.; the first Federal Aviation Agency inspector; and the first National Transportation Safety Board air-crash investigator (where she made the bizarre discovery that people who die in small-plane crashes often have their jewelry, shoes and clothes stripped off by the impact).

Why didn't she become an astronaut? NASA wasn't officially interested in females in space back then, so a private foundation (with NASA support) put together a course of physical and mental tests in Albuquerque, N.M., similar to those used to train the all-male Mercury 7. Twenty-five women were invited, 19 enrolled, and 13 graduated, including Funk, who at 21 was the youngest. On some tests, she scored better than John Glenn. The women called themselves the Mercury 13.

Even then, however, the U.S. rejected the idea of women in space. Funk explains, "It was the era when women were in the kitchen. Space travel was the old-boy network." (Rumors blamed Lyndon Johnson for vetoing the idea, possibly because he feared back then that the death of a woman in space could kill the whole space program.) When Sally Ride finally became the first woman in space in 1983, Funk was overjoyed. But Ride was a scientist, called a mission specialist; Funk wanted to fly into space, not just ride there. By the time, in 1995, the first woman, Lieut. Colonel Eileen Collins, piloted a shuttle into space, Funk was too old to qualify. She's never gotten over the disappointment.

But now her chance has come, at least as a passenger. The Virgin Galactic spaceship that she will ride is designed to be carried to 50,000 ft. by a powerful plane, then released and will be propelled by rockets, with two pilots and six passengers aboard, to about 60 miles above the earth. There will be five minutes of total weightlessness and astonishing views of the planet. Then the spaceship will circle back down to New Mexico. The first flights are expected in 2013.

Funk is financing the adventure with movie and book royalties and money left to her by her mother. The family lived in Taos, N.M., where her parents operated a variety store catering to the artistic community. When artists could not pay their bills with cash, they often offered paintings instead. Funk still has a small Taos art collection in her Texas home, including work by such well-known painters as Bert Phillips, Dorothy Brett and Oscar Berninghaus.

Meanwhile, she is as busy as ever. She continues to train pilots, advises aerospace companies, lectures, still flies almost every day. Next week she is filming her life story in California for the Traveling Space Museum. Recently she went to Fort Campbell, Ky., to learn to fly the Black Hawk helicopter that carried an American flag in her honor on a November 2010 combat mission over Afghanistan.

Her fascination with space has never wavered. A few years ago, she flew back from Europe on the supersonic Concorde. Looking down from 70,000 ft., she could see the curvature of the earth. "I wanted to go higher, to be free," she remembers, "and I didn't care if I ever came back."