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Meet Wally Funk, the 82-year-old pilot who just went to space with Jeff Bezos

By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

After a half-century of waiting, Wally Funk — who trained for NASA’s Mercury program but was denied the opportunity to go to space — has finally gotten her time amongst the stars. This morning she flew to space with the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, and Blue Origin paying customer Oliver Daemen on a ten-minute thrill ride.

“I loved every minute of it. I just wish it had been longer…and could do a lot more rolls and twists and so forth,” she said after the flight. “But I loved it I can hardly wait to go again.”

Funk flew on the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket as an “honored guest,” according to a post on Bezos’ Instagram.

“It’s dark up here, oh my word!” Funk could be heard exclaiming on the audio stream of the launch.

“I saw darkness. I thought I was going to see the world but we weren’t quite high enough,” Funk added in the post-flight press conference.

Funk originally volunteered as a member of the “Mercury 13” program, otherwise known as the “Women in Space Program,” in February of 1961, which was a privately-funded effort intended to begin training women to fly in NASA’s earliest space programs. The 13 women in the program undertook all of the training and testing that the seven men selected by NASA for the Mercury spaceflight program undertook.

Funk became the youngest woman to graduate from the program, and she was told she “had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys,” she said during a promotional video about her participation in the Blue Origin flight.

Funk even spent 10 hours and 35 minutes inside a sensory deprivation tank in one Mercury 13 test, outperforming famed astronaut John Glenn.

“I got ahold of NASA four times, and said ‘I want to become an astronaut,’ but nobody would take me,” Funk said. “I didn’t think I would ever get to go up. Nothing has ever gotten in my way. They say, ‘Wally, you’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Guess what, doesn’t matter what you are, you can still do it if you want to do it,’ and I like to do things that nobody’s ever done before.”

Funk has extensive experience piloting aircraft, logging over 19,600 flying hours and teaching more than 3,000 people how to fly private and commercial aircraft.

“Everything the FAA has, I’ve got the license for. And I can outrun you,” she joked.

But Funk didn’t need all that experience to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle. The fully autonomous spacecraft and rocket system is designed to allow virtually anyone to become an astronaut after just a few hours of safety instructions and training at Blue Origin’s facilities in West Texas.

According to a 2019 profile of Funk in the Guardian, Funk previously purchased a ticket aboard the suborbital space plane built by the Richard Branson-backed company Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin’s direct competitor which is still in the testing phase of its program and has not yet announced a date for its first commercial flight.

It’s not clear if Funk will keep her plans to fly with Virgin Galactic as well.

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