COLUMBIA — An alumna from Stephens College became the oldest person to go to space after Jeff Bezos and three others were launched into space Tuesday morning.
"I've got goosebumps speaking right now," said Shannon Walls, a Stephens employee.
Wally Funk, 82, was on the Blue Origin flight, making her the oldest person to travel to space. She graduated from Stephens in 1958.
"Our aviation program in the 1940s and '50s taught women to fly," said Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College. "She left here with a dream... and that dream was that she would someday do this."
Funk would eventually get her pilot's license while at Stephens.
She earned top aviation ratings in college, was a professional certified pilot and became the first female civilian flight instructor at a U.S. military base — all at a time when women were systemically barred from many professions.
For Funk, all of it was in service of fulfilling one mission: becoming one of the first female astronauts. In 1961, the aviation whiz caught a break when, despite being under the required age of 24, she became the youngest of the so-called Mercury 13 women, who underwent testing to demonstrate that women could qualify for NASA's astronaut corps.
But because she was a woman, Funk's dreams of flying into space never came to fruition. It wasn't until Bezos chose Funk to fly with him that she had the opportunity to fulfill that dream.
The community at Stephens says Funk is an inspiration.
"She's been a constant presence for Stephens College and just the epitome of what a Stephens' woman is all about," said Walls.
Funk and three other passengers were strapped into the New Shepard crew capsule at Blue Origin's launch site in rural West Texas. The rocket reached an altitude of 351,210 feet.
At the peak of the flight path, the passengers were weightless for about three minutes and were allowed to unstrap themselves from their seat to float around.
"It's dark up here, oh my word!" Funk could be heard saying.
"This woman that I know and have known for a very long time has been given this oppertunity," said Walls. "I'm so happy. I can't express anything more than just smiles and happiness for her."
Friends of Funk gathered at Kimball Ballroom on campus to watch the 11 minute trip.
"There was that moment of just great joy for her and trying to imagine how she was feeling... although you could hear her," Walls said.
"When the flight took off... I thought, 'She did it. She's there. It's happening. Her dream is coming true,'" Lynch said. "You don't often get to watch somebody's dream come true."
3…2…1…BLAST OFF! 🚀 Stephens College alum Wally Funk is OFFICIALLY the oldest person to go to space.Her friends are watching back here on Earth at a watch party on campus. @KOMUnews pic.twitter.com/Xk9c6oUVJI— Kathryn Merck TV (@KathrynMerckTV) July 20, 2021