NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A New Mexico native who waited decades to get her chance to visit space, finally got her wings Tuesday. Wally Funk was among the four-passenger crew aboard Blue Origin‘s first human flight into suborbital space, also becoming the oldest person to go up into space.
Funk was born in Las Vegas and raised in Taos. However, her journey with NASA brought her back to the state to make space history. The New Mexico native learned to fly as a teen, but it was her early 20s that brought her back here for an opportunity to go to space.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get it up there,” said Funk, after Tuesday’s launch. “Back in the ’60s, I was in the Mercury 13 program. They asked me, ‘do you want to be an astronaut’ and I said, ‘yes!'”
She was a part of Dr. Randy Lovelace’s ‘Women in Space’ program here in Albuquerque. She went through the same extensive fitness and physical exams the male astronauts went through — and passed them — only to be told she couldn’t be an astronaut because women weren’t allowed to be military test pilots, a requirement at the time.
“I’ve done a lot of astronaut training through the world, Russia, America,” said Funk. “I could always beat the guys on what they were doing because I was always stronger and I’ve always done everything on my own.”
More than 19,000 flight hours later, Funk finally launched into space Tuesday morning. She was onboard the first human flight of the New Shepard rocket, a part of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space program.
“I had such a good instructor, he told us through everything that we were going to do. So when I went up this morning, the noise wasn’t quite as bad, and we went right on up and I saw darkness,” said Funk. “I thought I was going to see the world, but we weren’t quite high enough and I felt great and I felt like I was just laying down. I was just laying down and I was going into space.”
The New Mexico Museum of Space History’s director Christopher Orwoll says Tuesday’s launch was incredible to witness. He says landmark events like this one with Funk and this month’s Virgin Galactic flight are making this region the center of space tourism.
“Western Texas and New Mexico are becoming, there’s a corridor of space activities going on in this area now. You take a look at all the research and development that we know goes on in New Mexico but now we have people that are going to be flying tourists out of Spaceport America Then we’re going to have spacecraft landing at White Sands Missile Range at the White Sands Space Harbor, Boeing spacecraft coming back from the Space Station and today had the first launch down there in western Texas,” said Orwoll. “Space tourism can do nothing but benefit the economy of New Mexico and western Texas.”
As for Funk, she says she’s ready for her next space mission. Next time, she hopes to go up for longer.
“I loved every minute of it. Just wish it could’ve been longer because I had been in, not in space before, up in that area, and could do a lot more rolls and twists and so forth. There was not quite enough room for all four of us to do those things,” said Funk. “It was great, I loved it. I can hardly wait to go again!” “Amen,” replied Bezos. “Next stop is the moon for you, Wally.”
KRQE News 13 reached out to Spaceport America to get their perspective on the competition. Executive Director Scott McLaughlin issued the following statement:
“Everyone at Spaceport America is heartened by Blue Origin’s safe and successful flight. It helps demonstrate that space tourism is a real and growing market, and New Mexico and this region are at the forefront of this growing industry.”
Technically, three of Tuesday’s four passengers were born in the state. Jeff and his brother Mark Bezos were born in Albuquerque but moved away as children. The fourth passenger, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the youngest person to go up in space, is from the Netherlands.