• Science

Wally Funk Is Going to Space Aboard Jeff Bezos’s Rocket. Here’s Why That Matters

5 minute read

There’s a good reason for all the fuss about Wally Funk this week. On July 20, Funk, 82—an aviator, the first female air-safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—will climb aboard a Blue Origin New Shepard spacecraft and fly a suborbital arc more than 100 km (62 mi.) up, becoming the oldest person ever to go to space.

The flight comes courtesy of Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who is accompanying Funk and two other passengers on the first crewed flight of his company’s spacecraft. Bezos tapped her for the mission last month—fulfilling Funk’s lifetime dream of going to space—and released an irresistible video of him breaking the news to her in person, and asking her what her first words would be when she landed.

“I would say, ‘Honey, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me!'” she exulted, grabbing the richest man in the world in a bear hug.

So what’s not to like about Funk and her trip? Not a thing—except that in some ways the plaudits for her are coming 60 years too late.

In 1961, Funk, then 21 and already a professional aviation instructor, joined what was formally known as the “Women in Space” program—an aspirational project that in fact had not a lick of a chance of ever sending so much as a single woman to so much as a single square foot of space. Privately funded by William Lovelace, a physician and flight surgeon in the Army Medical Corps Reserve, Women in Space was a sort of proof-of-concept idea. Running parallel to NASA’s Mercury program—which was then training the seven men who very much were going to go to space—it was designed to put a similar corps of women through exactly the same physical and mental tests being administered to the male astronauts to see how they fared.

As it happened, they fared just fine, with 19 women enrolling and 13 graduating—Funk at the top of the class—proving that women could pass the same rigorous tests the men could. And then…nothing. The program folded after that and the women, who became popularly known as the Mercury 13, watched from the ground as the men of NASA flew and flew and flew. Funk applied to become a commercial airline pilot and was again passed over, almost certainly because of her gender. Instead she continued training other people to fly and ultimately assuming her positions with the FAA and the NTSB. She estimates she trained more than 3,000 eventual pilots, and she has accumulated 19,600 hours of flight time herself—or the equivalent of 2.2 years at the stick.

Still, space beckoned—and still Funk persisted. In 1979, when NASA first announced it was accepting female astronaut candidates, she applied for the job—four times, in fact—never making the cut, partly because of her age; she was 40 by the time NASA began accepting female applicants. And yet she didn’t give up on the dream, deciding her best bet to make it to space was as a paying passenger: in 2010 she put a deposit down to fly aboard Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft—in the event it ever flew.

Branson did fly, on July 11, beating fellow billionaire Bezos to space by nine days (presuming everything goes as planned for Blue Origin next week). But if Branson jumped the flight queue, Bezos jumped the Funk queue, inviting her last month to fly on his ship—immediately and for free.

“This is Wally’s life ambition and she deserves it. After decades of waiting, it’s time—she finally gets to go,” says Linda Mills, Blue Origin’s vice president of communications. “We’re excited to celebrate this moment with her and thrilled she’ll finally get to earn her astronaut wings.”

The fact that Funk is earning those wings as the oldest person to fly in space may be a smaller part of her larger story, but it comes with a certain circularity. She’ll break the record set by John Glenn who, in 1998, made his second trip to space—36 years after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth—at age 77. Shortly after he made that first historic journey, he testified before Congress about the wisdom of opening up the space program to women, and he did not cover himself in glory. “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them,” he said. “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”

That long-ago social order has, happily, been demolished—but not before it did Funk wrong. Now, generations later, the wrong is at least being partly righted, and it’s not just in the case of Funk. In 2019, the first all-female spacewalk took place. NASA has recently chosen 18 astronaut candidates for its Artemis lunar program—nine men and nine women—and promises that the program will land “the first woman and the next man on the moon.” Space, once a man’s place, is at last and forever changing—and Wally Funk is perhaps the most poignant face of that transformation.

More from TIME

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com