Higher, faster, longer. This motto has always allowed Wally Funk to persist in her life, and finally enabled her to realize her lifelong dream: to go to space.
This pioneering female pilot had always dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but was refused work in the 1960s because of her gender. All this will change on Tuesday, because she attaches to the Blue Origin capsule and flies to the universe.
Billionaire Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, and student Oliver Daemen from the Netherlands will complete the work of four passengers during the first manned launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
The rocket will take off from Texas, USA at 8 am local time (13:00 GMT). Daemen, 18, will be the youngest person to launch into space, and Funk, 82, will be the oldest.
Women in space
Fink’s obsession with airplanes and aviation began decades ago.
When she was a child, she used balsa wood to make airplanes, and even took her first flight lesson when she was 9 years old.
When she was a teenager, she obtained a pilot’s license from Stephens College and then entered Oklahoma State University, where she studied education and honed her skills.
In the university aviation club, known as “Flying Aggies”, she often outperforms boys.
“I can do all the moves like the boys, if not better,” Fink told Al Jazeera.
She later became a flight instructor. While working at a military base, she heard about an Air Force project to recruit women for the U.S. space program.
In the early 1960s, the “Women in Space” project initiated by William Randolph Lovelace set out to investigate whether women are as capable of handling space flight as men. The pilot Jerrie Cobb who participated in the program named her colleague the First Lady Astronaut Intern.
Fink applied, and even though she was only 22 years old (the age requirement is technically 25 to 40 years old), she was accepted.
She passed every test they performed on her, including more than 10 hours in the sensory deprivation box, surpassing the record set by Mercury astronaut John Glenn.
Despite passing smoothly, Fink was told that she would not become an astronaut after all, because the women’s project was cancelled. This didn’t make Funk any slower.
“I’m not an abandoner,” Fink said. “It’s cancelled? Wally continues. I’m not an abandoner.”
She wrote many times to NASA about becoming an astronaut, but in that era, astronauts were mainly men, either military pilots or engineers. Fink studied education.
So she tried to go back to school to study engineering, but she said she was cancelled because she was a woman.
Funk decided to continue to break through the capabilities of women in the aviation field.
“I took all the exams as much as possible,” she said. “I even went to Russia to participate in their astronaut test and defeated all the boys.”
Failure is not an option
Despite Funk’s success, space is still out of reach. But withdrawal was not her vocabulary, so when a new era of commercial space flight began, she persevered.
Ten years ago, after Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder Richard Branson announced that he would take tourists into space one day, she paid a deposit for Virgin Galactic flights. She didn’t know if she could live to see the day when things happened, but she still wanted to participate in this adventure anyway.
Then, in June, Fink received a call from another space billionaire, former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. He invited her to take part in the first flight of his new Shepard rocket on July 20.
The flight on Tuesday will last about 10 minutes in total. During the four minutes, Funk will experience breathtaking views of the earth and experience weightlessness.
Then, the capsule will land under a parachute in the Texas desert, consolidating Fink in the history book as the oldest person to fly into space and replacing astronaut John who completed the trip at the age of 77. · Glenn (John Glenn).
Need more diversity
Funk’s story of perseverance is very inspiring. However, she struggled to become a woman and has plagued NASA (and the entire aerospace industry) since its inception.
According to a report by the career platform Zippia, only 12.5% of U.S. aerospace engineers are women, And the statistics have not really changed in the past ten years.
Recently, NASA has taken a big step to welcome more women and people of different backgrounds and races to join.
Currently, it has four centers in the United States led by women-Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and Glenn Research Center.
The deputy director of NASA is also a woman, as is the person in charge of manned spaceflight.
As part of the agency’s Artemis moon landing plan, NASA promised to send the first woman and the first person of color to the moon in the next few years. These astronauts will be tied to the Orion spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin Aerospace, one of NASA’s main contractors.
Lockheed Martin recently opened a new production facility in Florida to help streamline processes and bring more aviation jobs to the region. The company stated that more than 20% of its leaders are women.
Lockheed Martin’s Orion production director Kelly De Fazio said the company will add at least 40 jobs in Florida, and she hopes that many of these jobs will be for women.
“My father is part of the Apollo project, so it’s really exciting to see the area grow again. We [as Lockheed Martin] I want to be a part of it,” De Fazio told Al Jazeera.
In the office not far away, Subaair is studying NASA’s next large rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). As an Indian-American scientist, she witnessed the need for more diversity.
“I am a mechanical engineer, and even today, you don’t see many women in my field,” Iyer told Al Jazeera.
But after working in the aerospace industry for nearly 30 years, on various projects including the space shuttle and now SLS, Iyer said that she finally saw things change.
“It’s great to be part of this plan,” she said.
“I have teenage boys, so they just see what is happening and what I’m involved in, it will make a difference,” Iyer added. “My children are proud of me.”
One benefit of the booming commercial aerospace sector is that by collaborating with more companies, NASA and other institutions are learning new ways of thinking and innovation, and incorporating more diverse teams.
NASA and the National Science Foundation are also collaborating on a program to help attract people from communities that are currently underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.
As long as it continues to promote the inclusion of a more diverse workforce, the United States seems ready to continue to be the world leader in the space sector.