By Joy Donovan
Photography by Mike Lewis
Grapevine’s Wally Funk, octogenarian astronaut, is back on Earth but still in orbit
Honey, you know when Wally Funk is in the room.
If Funk doesn’t catch your attention with her broad smile or her shirt covered with airplane appliques, maybe she will when she throws her arms in the air, calls you “Honey” or hollers “Whoa” when she’s excited.
After all, this 84-year-old Grapevine resident wasn’t raised to be a shrinking violet. Nope, Wally Funk was born to be an astronaut. It took her more than eight decades to reach space, but she made it. The international headlines proclaimed it, Honey.
On July 20, 2021, Funk got her long-delayed wish to fly into space, as the guest of Amazon chief Jeff Bezos. His Blue Origin spacecraft lifted her into the heavens, making her the oldest person ever to fly into space. Joining Funk on the liftoff from a West Texas launchpad were Bezos, Bezos’ brother, Mark, and 18-year-old Oliver Daeman from the Netherlands.
“I’m an aerospace traveler,” she says.
At age 82, on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, she finally achieved her goal.
Had she been a man, that goal likely would have happened much sooner. In the 1960s, Funk was the youngest member of the Mercury 13, a group of 13 trailblazing female pilots who held the experience and qualifications to be astronauts. But their training program was scrapped, even though some of them outperformed their male counterparts.
What came next for Funk? Honey, she moved on. She instructed 3,000 future pilots, became the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector and first female National Transportation Safety Board investigator, traveled the globe and owned four airplanes.
After a subsequent Grapevine parade to mark her space journey, a celebratory lunch and a round of press interviews, Funk has come back down to Earth. Her orbit is closer to home now, filled with frequent speaking engagements. Women’s clubs, Sunday school classes and civic groups delight in her lively talks about space, her beloved Taos and her mother, whom she adores. Her loud voice makes a microphone unnecessary for her animated talks, which are punctuated by “Whoa!” and her arms thrown overhead.
Not surprisingly, she yearns to be off the ground and going fast. “I do all the outside stuff, Honey,” she says.
Funk — who grew up in New Mexico — says in her talks that she became interested in flight as a child and resisted her mother’s wishes for her to learn to cook and do what Funk calls “girl things.” Her path to aviation got an unusual start. She did not graduate from high school because Stephens College in Missouri recruited her into its aviation program as a teenager.
At Stephens, then all women, she graduated first among 24 aviators, earning an associate degree, before going on to earn numerous flying certificates at Oklahoma State University. Her resume boasts a list of “firsts” and “youngest” in aeronautic achievements. All her life she has soared, untethered by stereotypes, looking for her next adventure.
Funk, who ultimately ended up in the Metroplex for work, lives near Grapevine High School. Photos, medals and books fill every nook and cranny of her home. Such treasures as an honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, a proclamation as a Kentucky Colonel, that state’s highest honor, and framed aviation badges line her hallway. Snapshots of former students cover her refrigerator. A shadow box displays ancient pottery shards she collected in New Mexico. A friend calls her home a “mini museum.”
A chair in her living room is labeled for her frequent visitor, Grapevine City Councilwoman Duff O’Dell. The two have known each other for more than 10 years but really connected after Funk’s Grapevine homecoming celebration.
“She’s the friendliest, nicest person I know,” O’Dell said. “‘Unique’ is not even a big enough word for Wally. She’s truly larger than life. She’s fascinating to me.”
The two have lunch together almost weekly, with Funk eating the meat and vegetables that have become part of her routine, unless she veers off course for pepperoni pizza. She drinks only warm water, as her mother instructed her to do. Conversations are lively when Funk is interested. She might not care who the president is, but she can talk about the barometric pressure, Honey.
“I’m so glad she’s a part of my life,” O’Dell said. “I adore her.”
Clearly, Funk is adored by many, and that includes the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of female pilots. At a recent meeting, the local chapter’s energy level rose when Funk appeared.
“Wally is the greatest human ever,” chapter chair Mariah Banker, a commercial pilot, said. “We love her. She’s so great. The very first time I met her, she made me feel like I’d always known her.”
An active member of the chapter that meets at Fort Worth’s Meacham International Airport, Funk revels in their attention.
“I thought she was the most entertaining person I’d met in my whole life,” said Allie Hoyt, the local chapter’s vice chair, who’s known Funk since 2010 and has flown
At the meeting, Funk was photographed with a Stearman biplane like one she used to own. She loved the open cockpit. “The best thing I ever did was buy that Stearman,” she said.
When she’s not with the pilot group, Funk keeps a grounded profile. She reads two newspapers daily and pulls all the dandelions in her yard and in her neighbors’ yards, too. She works out doing crunches on an exercise ball in her living room, solves three puzzles a day, attends White’s Chapel Methodist Church in Southlake, watches birds take to the sky and makes countless phone calls, sometimes to Bezos, whose number she still has. No cooking, politics, drinking, smoking or bad moods are allowed.
“I’ve never been mad,” she said.
Near her front door rests the bag Funk takes to every speaking engagement. It contains the thumb drive she guards carefully, because it contains the photos of her life’s work; her book, Higher, Faster, Longer; a photo album; magazines profiling her; and her trademark “Wally Stick.” The slender wooden stick, which she used to train her students, measures fuel. Funk doesn’t own a computer or an iPhone; somebody loaded her thumb drive for her.
“If you have less than 7 inches,” she said, pointing to the 7-inch mark on her stick, “you don’t go up.”
Honey, Wally Funk still has way more than that in her personal tank. “Whoa!”