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'Wow, There Goes The Ground': North Texan Wally Funk Shares Story Of Her Dream Journey Into Space

by Doug Dunbar | CBS 11

FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - On July 20, 2021, Wally Funk lived a dream that was more than six decades in the making.

And what's most fulfilling perhaps, is that she never saw it coming.

As she tells the story, one early July day, she got a knock at the door, and there was a guy, with four or five people behind him. A camera, too.

♦♦♦WEB EXTRA - Wally Funk And Doug Dunbar Head To The Pancake House♦♦♦

She didn't know Jeff Bezos. She had no clue the man who knocked was the founder of Amazon. And never, ever, foreshadowed his invitation to go to space.

Funk says she in fact had given Richard Branson $200,000 some 20 years ago, for a spot on his Virgin Galactic mission, to one day experience a trip to space.

But Bezos beat him to it, and did it for nothing.

Funk describes Bezos and his Blue Origin team as incredibly kind, talented, and just a joy to have been around.

In the weeks since her history-making launch, Funk has been making weekly trips to the post office. Each time, 200 to 300 cards and letters.

Wally Funk
Wally Funk (credit: Doug Dunbar - CBS 11)

She's taken some time to read the well wishes, and those who include phone numbers, get a call back, and a "thank you" for sending the card.

"It's the right thing to do," she said. It's how she was raised.

Spending time in her living room, is to walk the historic path of pictures, certificates, honors and more.

Funk's memory chest on display, speaks to such a rich aviation history.

From her days as one of the Mercury 13, a band of women who were put through the very same astronaut training program as the men back in the 1960s, to the flight instructor of more than 3,000 people who became pilots.

First ever female NTSB and FAA inspector as well.

Doug Dunbar and Wally Funk
Doug Dunbar and Wally Funk (Doug Dunbar - CBS 11)

But despite that rich history, Funk's heart is as warm as it gets. In fact, she offered the chance to bring something important to me, on her ride to space.

Blue Origin provided a small blue pouch, that could weigh no more than three pounds.

For me, it was a key ring that I keep with pictures of many cancer warrior heroes I have met over the years.

So many are friends, most have won their fights, and some have finished their race.

My heart soared when Funk offered to take the key ring, which included a picture of my late mom who waged her own war against Leukemia.

All of my honored heroes, in space, touching the edge of the universe, and a special hello to my mom up there.

Funk's pouch was filled to the brim, a bounty of kindness from the lady who has given so much to others.

Wally's energy and enthusiasm, at 82, is contagious.

She's a woman who was told she couldn't be an astronaut back in the 60s, because she was a woman. Instead of being angry, Funk is all about doing what you can, and don't worry about the rest. Whatever barriers in life she's faced, she hasn't gone around them, she's simply gone right through them!

So it came as no surprise that on launch day, we all watched as Wally led the way. Up eight flights of stairs at the Blue Origin launch pad.

She shared with me that when they told her about the stairs, she visited her doctor. And it turns out, her doctor has a pretty darn nice stairwell.

So Funk practiced, using her doctor's stairwell.

"One or two times, it was no big deal," she said.

When launch time came and then went at 8 a.m. central time, Wally wasn't having any more holds on fulfilling the lifetime dream of flying to space.

As the crew waited, Wally pushed her communication button with her thumb, and got on the radio.

"What's the hold up?" she asked over the radio.

Quintessential Wally Funk.

Something is amiss, let's fix the problem, and let's go!

Just minutes after the hold, New Shepard roared to life. Six decades of waiting and holding were finally over. Funk's dream began to roar skyward.

She said, "You can feel the engine start to build up" as the rocket blasted and she began to pushed further into her seat.

And as the rocket rose above the desert on that sunny morning, Funk's first look out her window led her to smile and simply say, "Wow! There goes the ground!"

She says she was amazed at the speed. Not that she felt it, but next to her seat was a monitor with all the flight data displayed.

New Shepard would eventually push Funk's capsule more than 2,500 miles per hour. More than three time the speed of sound.

But she felt nothing. Heard nothing as well. Until capsule separation.

And that's when it all came together. A life's dream, floating free in space.

Wally Funk speaks with Doug Dunbar
Wally Funk speaks with Doug Dunbar (Doug Dunbar - CBS 11)

Listening to the video of their weightless experience, you hear clear shouts of joy from Wally, like "ahhh, fantastic" and "ooh, I love it."

In Funk's words, those three minutes of floating free in space were "the greatest feeling! Because you are on your own! I'm gonna do about three turns, or somersaults, or lay flat. Or do a somersault, whatever you can do because nothing is holding you back!"

Wally Funk finally made it to the place she firmly believes she's always belonged. Floating free in zero G.

As the capsule continued its free fall toward earth, Funk says she buckled back into her seat, looked out, and couldn't believe it was almost over.

The parachutes deployed as designed, small jets gave a short burst of air just as the capsule touched down in the desert.

Wally says the landing was soft. Just a "thump" and that was it.

And then the moment we all waited for, newly-minted space travelers exiting the capsule, including the woman who has had aviation and space in her blood since she was born.

As she stretched her arms out and screamed as she left the capsule, she did so now as the oldest person to ever fly to space.

Wally Funk soared to over 350,000 feet above the earth, surpassing the Karman line 62 miles up, internationally recognized as the beginning of space.

Her return home has included non-stop mail, and phone calls. Requests to have her speak. Requests to have her come and be honored.

It is attention richly deserved for a woman who broke down yet another barrier. A woman who has now set the bar higher than it's ever been.

But given all the attention, accolades and such, there is one more moment in life Wally Funk hopes for now.

Another knock at the door.

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