Higher, Faster, Longer: Shabbat Vaetchanan, Friday, July 23, 2021

I just want to say: Wally Funk is the coolest, most amazing woman in the universe. The fact that, at 82, she became the oldest person to travel in space is the least of it. When she took off with Jeff Bezos in the Blue Origin spacecraft on Tuesday, she finally achieved a goal that was denied to her six decades ago.

Wally Funk – the pilot with the shock of white hair, the amazing smile, the great laugh – was once a member of a private space program we now call the Mercury 13 but then was called FLAT: First Lady Astronaut Trainees. In 1961, at age 21, she became a star among a group of women getting the same training as the men of the Mercury program who made the first forays into space. William Randolph Lovelace, who had once worked for NASA, wanted to show that women could handle the assignment as well as men. And, in fact, many of the women did better in the training. Wally’s scores were higher than John Glenn’s – and she was only the third best woman![1]

But the program was shut down. Not a single FLAT ever went into space. There actually was one congressional sub-committee hearing about it, where two of the FLAT participants begged for the chance – and where John Glenn himself opposed it, saying that including women in the space program “may be undesirable.”[2]

Mercury 13, in many ways, became a victim of what I personally would describe as the testosterone-fueled space obsessions of the Cold War. Ironically, while the Soviet Union sent Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963, no American woman would do so until 1983 – when Sally Ride joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger.[3]

And Wally Funk? The woman who dreamed of flying at such an early age that she jumped off the roof of a barn in a Superman costume when she was five years old, thinking the suit could keep her airborne?[4] Who had piloted her first solo flight at the age of 16 and became a professional aviator at age 20?

She applied twice to NASA, in 1962 and 1966, during the Gemini programs. She was turned down both times for lack of an engineering degree – which had been denied her at her local college. And which, it should be pointed out, John Glenn also lacked. She was always ready. NASA was not.

But Wally Funk was not a quitter. She found other ways to fulfill her personal motto of “Higher, Faster, Longer.” In many ways, she succeeded. She logged 19-thousand hours in the air. She became a flight instructor and taught 3-thousand other people how to fly. She became an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. In 2012 – when she was already in her 70s – Wally Funk even learned how to fly a Black Hawk Helicopter.

In the meantime, other women were finally getting their shot. Two years after Sally Ride finally shattered the galactic glass ceiling in 1983, Eileen Collins became the first woman to actually pilot a space shuttle. By then, Wally Funk was too old to join the program.

And so she had the ride of her life on Tuesday – July 20th, 52 years to the day after Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, surely a day that Jeff Bezos deliberately chose for the first flight of Blue Origin. She giggled through her few minutes of weightlessness, and marveled at the darkness that enfolded around the capsule as it reached the altitude where space begins. When the crew was greeted back on the ground, she exited the capsule jumping over the threshold, arms open wide, and a grin from ear to ear.

Wally Funk finally had gone where she ought to have been sixty years ago, had sexism and politics and personal prejudices not gotten in her way. In the press conference afterwards, Wally declared: “I loved it! I can hardly wait to go again!” When Jeff Bezos turned to her and said: “Amen! Next stop for you is the moon, Wally,” she replied, “Yes, it is.”[5]

I think of Wally Funk in the same pioneering spirit of our Israelite ancestors, who are being prepared by Moses in this week’s Torah portion to venture into the unknown. Like Wally Funk, they had a very long wait to get to where they belonged all along. Not as long as her 60 years – but long.

And just as Wally may not get to the moon, which would have been her Promised Land, not every Israelite completed the journey. A whole generation died in the wilderness, including Aaron and Miriam. And even Moses had to hand the reins to Joshua to see the people across the Jordan River.

As it happens, Moses’s rhetoric in this week’s parashah reminds us just how much we always have dreamed of reaching up into the heavens — where the weight of the earth disappears and reality takes on a whole new form.

“You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you,” Moses says, “ever since God created man on earth, from one end of heaven to the other, has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known?”[6]

No, it hasn’t. The heavens – ha-shamayim – remain a place of wonder. To reach its heights, and to experience the miraculous and beautiful world that God has created from its vantage point, remains our greatest desire.

But reaching into the heavens is also a symbol of broader human accomplishment. Moses’s description of transcending the bounds of earth goes hand in hand with the demands that God makes of us while we are here. And so here Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments given on Sinai, which direct our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. When Moses urges each of us to seek God with all our heart and soul – b’chol l’vavcha uv’chol naf’shecha – he calls on us to follow God’s path of personal faith, mutual compassion, and communal responsibility.[7]

Higher. Faster. Longer. Let Wally Funk’s motto be our inspiration. Let us never be deterred. And let us say: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://peoplepill.com/people/wally-funk

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jun/24/ill-be-flying-till-i-die-why-wally-funk-wont-give-up-her-lifelong-space-mission

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/19/science/wally-funk-jeff-bezos.html

[4] https://peoplepill.com/people/wally-funk for this information and all that follows.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kmpb7xJJ10I

[6] Deuteronomy 4:32.

[7] Deuteronomy 4:29.

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