A hangar at Northwest Regional Airport in Roanoke was packed with dozens of women pilots Tuesday morning watching one of their own, Wally Funk, make history.
At 82 years old, Funk, of Grapevine, is now the oldest person to travel to space.
She was one of four passengers on the Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket when it blasted into space just after 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Blue Origin, an aerospace company led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, made its first flight with people on board.
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Funk was personally selected by Bezos to join him on the flight, alongside Bezos’ brother. Another passenger, an 18-year-old from the Netherlands, was also on board by way of a winning charity auction.
"I am so relieved. They just did an amazing job. My heart was in my throat, I couldn't breathe,” said Jerry Anne Jurenka, a pilot and longtime friend of Funk's.
Life Around Van Horn, Texas
The local chapters hosted a watch party to watch their own beloved member and mentor finally breach the Earth’s atmosphere and make it into space.
“The Ninety-Nines are about support, just like Wally gave me as a student pilot,” said Dr. Monica Randolph-Graham, who is on the board of directors for the national organization. “Wally has taught me so much about continuing to always have a dream. To never give up. She’s just amazing.”
Funk has been flying planes for 60 years. Her journey to space on the rocket is truly a full-circle moment in her life.
She was one of 13 women trained to be an astronaut for Project Mercury in the 1960s. The program was privately funded but the women all underwent the same amount and of intense training that NASA astronauts endured preparing for space.
But it was a different time period. Despite her training, NASA never accepted her or the other Project Mercury members because of their gender.
Now, she's the only member of the Mercury 13 to finally go to space.
"That lady has done more for our organization and for the young pilots coming up," said Jody McCarrell, who has known Funk since meeting her in the Ninety-Nines in 1971 and judging flying championships together. "She was my safety officer and I used to run a lot of events at colleges that have aviation programs. She has always put in 100%. She's wonderful with these young fresh pilots."
Like Earhart has inspired generations of women to pursue a career in aviation, Funk’s friends believe this rocket flight will inspire more young girls to pursue their dreams in the skies.
"It was so inspiring for all of us. No matter what age, you have to keep following your dreams,” said Deborah Hecker, an American Airlines Captain and senior manager of policies and procedures for the airline. “Dreams do come true. Just keep following, no matter what obstacles are in your way. You just keep going. And she has shown us the way for all of us to continue fighting and reaching our goals. It's just overwhelming."
Blue Origin Launch
Hecker, who is on the board of directors for Women in Aviation, said many of their local members look up to Funk as a pioneer for women in aviation and aerospace.
“Young women need to see role models, and she is certainly an incredible role model as a flight instructor and as a teacher inspiring us to reach our goals,” she said.
In fact, many of them have learned how to fly because of Funk. In her lifetime, she’s instructed more than 3,000 students.
"Her focus has been on young people and women. I first worked with Wally when we were working with an international flight school in Texas and helping to train young people," said fellow pilot Stephanie Roberts. "One of the byproducts of getting to know Wally and her vibrant personality is that young people learn about the early history of manned flight."
Outside of visiting space, Funk was also the first female air-safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Her friends are happy to see Funk be selected – out of so many people in this world – to finally accomplish something she's had her heart set on for so many decades.
“Every time Wally gets publicity or does another first for women, it creates another role model for young girls. She gives girls something to aspire to," said Jarenka. "It's extremely exciting. It's something she's wanted to do forever. I'm just so proud of her. I can't think of anyone more deserving to go into space."