For the 500 or so well-heeled individuals who've signed up with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to make the brief trip into space, there is probably no more qualified person on the list than Wally Funk of Roanoke, Texas. At 73, she has been flying since the age of 16 and has amassed 18,600 flight hours and has trained 2,000 pilots. She was a champion air racer and has made three historic firsts; she was the first civilian flight instructor at Fort Sill, OK; the first FAA inspector; and the first NTSB air crash investigator.
Time Magazine reports that she almost got to add astronaut to the list in the 1960's as she trained in a private program for women with NASA's support similar to the physical and mental tests the male Mercury astronauts endured. Of the 25 women invited, 19 enrolled and 13 graduated. Then at 21, Funk was the youngest of the group. The women called themselves the Mercury 13. Even with NASA's support the country wasn't quite ready for women in space. Funk says "It was the era when women were in the kitchen. Space travel was the old-boy network."
Now through the courtesy of Virgin Galactic, she will have the opportunity to do something that eluded her 40 years ago. The space flight will take passengers to a point 60 miles above the earth where they will experience five minutes of weightlessness with amazing views of the planet, and then return for landing in New Mexico. The first flights are expected to begin in 2013. Until then Ms. Funk is staying busy training pilots, advising aerospace companies, and working the lecture circuit.