It 's official. I want to be Wally. No, let me clarify that. I didn't say that I want to be a wally, even though some may think that I have already achieved this status. I want to be the Wally. Being the Wally is amazing. Being the Wally you have to be courageous, patient, strong and not give up on your dreams no matter the obstacles. She is inspiring and I want to be her. Her full name is Wally Funk and she was the one and only woman on board New Shepard, Jeff Bezo´s space capsule which took a ten minute voyage into space on 20th July. Not only was she the only woman about the spacecraft, but she is also the oldest person in history to have been blasted into space. Wow!
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, had the rocket developed at his firm Blue Origin, which is located in the Texan desert. The capsule travelled at nearly three times the speed of sound and reached a height of nearly 100kms (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface. Jeff, his brother Mark, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen - the youngest person to travel to space, and Wally Funk were the four passengers of the spacecraft on the ten-minute voyage.
Wally Funk was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1939 and took her first flying lesson at the age of nine. Since then, she has never looked back. In 1961 she volunteered for the Women in Space programme in the hope of becoming an astronaut. Unfortunately, the programme was abruptly cancelled and she did not make it to space with NASA. However, this did not deter her and she became the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board as well as the first female instructor at a US military base.
As I read about her story, I can see a life dedicated to what she loved - flying, space and aviation. Her presence aboard the New Shepard came at the end of decades of achievement, effort, perseverance as well as disappointment in being overlooked by NASA for space voyages in the 1960s because she was a woman. In looking at her life, there can be no doubt that she was the perfect candidate to be selected by Jeff Bezos for that voyage and that through a lifetime dedicated to space programmes, she had shown herself to be the right candidate.
As much as I am an intrepid traveller, no-one is ever going to select me for a space voyage based upon my knowledge of space or the sciences. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t appreciate space or the sciences. It’s just that when the details start becoming technical, I get distracted by the birds or something that I hadn’t remembered to do the day before or what I’m going to eat for dinner. There are all sorts of things that clamour for my attention when certain subjects are mentioned. So if I am ever going to go into space, it will be because I have won the lottery or the ticket in a raffle.
However, as I am a dreamer with a vivid imagination, I’d like to imagine what it would be like to see our home planet from so far away. Leaving that which is familiar behind is not too difficult for me. I have travelled a lot and each experience is an exciting challenge of encountering a new world as well as leaving what is familiar behind. However, no matter where you go in the world, there are still certain familiar points of reference. For example, seas and oceans, mountains and fields, birds and flowers. Granted that the views of these may change from place to place, but there is still a consistent familiarity to our geographical landmarks. Rivers have mouths, oceans have waves and mountains have peaks. But space doesn’t have mountains, seas or rivers and every possible point of reference is removed as the blue planet becomes more and more distant. Instead of birds, planets, stars and the Milky Way take their place. Instead of rivers, asteroid belts become one’s point of reference.
Many of my most memorable journeys to date have been long in duration. I currently live in Spain and in order to travel to New Zealand, I need to take an 11-hour flight somewhere, have a stopover and then get another 11-hour flight from the stopover destination to New Zealand. I then need to repeat that to return to Spain. In total, that is a total of 44-48 hours of flight time just to get there and back. And I enjoy it! There’s nothing like getting on a long-haul flight, getting comfortable, choosing your options from the menu, lying back to enjoy your personal entertainment (in my case I'm usually catching up on Asian cinema or the latest Hollywood flicks that I managed to miss at the cinema) and having a snooze from time to time. However, 12 hours is not the longest flight that I have taken. With advances in technology flight times are being constantly reduced. I remember the first time I flew from Singapore to London, the flight length was 16 hours. And I enjoyed that flight too.
In terms of train journeys, the longest one that I have ever taken was from Changchun in the north east of China to Guangzhou in Canton in the very south of China. The journey time was 36 hours and I had booked a small room with a bed and ensuite bathroom. That makes it sound like I was travelling in the lap of luxury but it was not the Orient Express! I was very glad to have a little privacy in terms of the bathroom and to be able to sleep undisturbed. I was travelling in the winter and I left a frozen winter wonderland behind. For 24 hours the scenery continued to be a white spectacle and it is in these moments that one realises the enormity of a country such as China. After about 24 hours the snow and ice started disappearing and was replaced by green and lush vegetation, evidence that we were in the warmer regions of southern China.
But back to space travel. Ten minutes in a spacecraft. Ten minutes. There and back. I’m not sure if ten minutes satisfies the traveller in me, but of course, it would be like no other journey. It would also be rather odd not to take any photos. Taking photos is a normal travelling activity whether you have professional camera equipment or a phone. So a journey into space would have to be recorded in your mind. No replay buttons for friends. No selfies for social media. No uploaded videos to impress anyone who is remotely interested. No photos to look at after the journey was over. How would one find the words to talk about what hasn’t been seen by the majority? To describe something that doesn’t actually exist for those who have their feet firmly planted on planet Earth? And if you had the words to describe what you saw, how would you be able to describe your personal emotions at seeing something so amazing? To what could it be compared? Now there’s a challenge for anyone in terms of communication!
With the success of the maiden voyage of the New Shepard as well as Sir Richard Branson’s maiden voyage on the Virgin Galactic to the edge of space on 11th July 2021, it is obvious that our world has entered a new era. An era where space travel is no longer the imagination of Hollywood brought to life by special effects. An age where travel to exotic destinations has been eclipsed by the opportunity - for a privileged minority - to go where very few have been before. As I write this and consider the astonishing news from July, I must admit that I am astounded that this has become reality in my lifetime. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but it really does seem incredulous that this has been achieved and that space travel has gone beyond teams of scientists doing investigation and research.
So if for some random reason, my name was selected from a hat to be the ‘selected guest’ on a space voyage, would I go? Most definitely I would! I may have said it before, but I will say it again. Life is for living and opportunities are to be taken whenever they come along. Sometimes opportunities don’t come our way a second time in life. Sometimes they do, but we can never be guaranteed that they will. So, my philosophy for an exciting life is carpe diem. Seize the day - today. Not tomorrow. Just do it! And although I love long-distance travel and am very comfortable flying across the planet, I must admit, a ten-minute experience into space would be my trip of a lifetime.