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Astronaut Wally and the cowboy hat that rocketed into space

Billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos and pioneering female aviator Wally Funk emerge from their capsule after their flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. (Blue Origin/Reuters)

The voice in mission control called her astronaut Wally. The familiarity was fitting. When she stepped into the automated Blue Origin rocket that would for the first time carry the private company’s passengers into space, Wally Funk was a testament to determined optimism, good luck and relentless preparation. But mostly, she gave voice to the fact that no one really ever ages out of dreaming.

Funk, 82, can lay claim to the title of the oldest person to go into space now that the New Shepard capsule has parachuted safely back to Earth. She blasted off Tuesday morning alongside Oliver Daemen, 18, who made history as the youngest person to touch the cosmos. They were accompanied by a cowboy hat, a billionaire and his brother.

The group took off from the arid plains of Texas. Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s founder and owner of The Washington Post, swaggered up to the New Shepard capsule wearing his flight suit and a cowboy hat. He spent part of his childhood in Texas, dreaming about space travel, and so there is sentimentality attached to this fashion flourish that he chose for this entry into the history books.

Blue Origin's founder Jeff Bezos, along with his younger brother Mark Bezos, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen were passengers on the July 20 launch. (Video: Blue Origin)

And yet. The hat obscured Bezos’s face and hid any wide-eyed delight for a man who declared Tuesday the “best day ever.” It’s an outsize reminder — as if one was needed — that Bezos is the big hat, the big deal, with the overflowing bank account financing this experiment in space tourism. He is the mission’s nerve center of ego and ambition, confidence and poor fashion choices.

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For many, his lavishing money on his space dreams is pure folly. Others are lining up for the chance to defy gravity and see the graceful curvature of Earth, if only for a few fleeting minutes. The cowboy hat is a caricature of overzealous machismo. It is the emblem of courageous adventurousness and the pioneering spirit. It was impossible to ignore the hat. The hat made history.

But Funk, more than anyone — more than Bezos, more than the other billionaire space cowboys Elon Musk and Richard Branson, more than the fresh-faced Daemen — speaks to the boundary-breaking soul.

She stepped into the capsule, her short, white hair gleaming brightly in contrast to her cobalt blue flight suit. She moved with such confidence — this aviator whose physical and mental toughness had been tested and tested since she first trained for space flight some 60 years ago, but whose gender had tethered her to Earth far more firmly than gravity. NASA had no place for lady astronauts back then.

In 1961, she lost her chance to go to space. Today, at 82, she finally got her shot.

There is something wonderful and reassuring in knowing that at a time when youth is hailed as a near-magical state, when technology transforms the everyday pace of life into super-fast-forward, when it is nearly impossible to take a break from the urgency of now, there is still a reward in patience. The future doesn’t belong exclusively to the young. It can belong to an octogenarian, too. And although her tomorrows may be fewer, each can be densely packed with meaning and accomplishment.

Funk was at the center of a human triumph following more than a year in which elders have seen more than their share of pain. They’ve borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. They were more vulnerable to its ravages. The elderly have seen mass deaths.

It was a balm to know that Funk was in space. Floating and laughing. Surprised by the darkness. Reveling. And after it was all over, it was a glorious sight when Funk burst through the capsule door with an exuberant smile and her arms spread wide like she was now wired for flight from the sheer joy of being alive. Every single day matters, no matter if it’s lived with limber muscles and sweet ignorance of travails or stiff joints and battle-scarred grace.

Freedom. That’s the message that came tumbling forth when Funk returned to Earth and greeted it with an open-armed hug.

After the short flight that allowed Funk a few minutes of weightlessness, the dome-shaped capsule floated back down to terra firma, suspended from three blue parachutes each with a center the color of a sunset. It was a beautiful image set against the pale sky and the arid Texas landscape.

The entire flight painted a picture about the enduring intoxication of dreams. Every life runs its course. But before the end arrives, before the downward spiral begins, curiosity rages on. The tug of a dream can last far beyond one’s retirement years. Sometimes, it takes that long to even be able to articulate what those desires are.

If only the culture could stop tripping over itself, so wrongs don’t have to be corrected decades and generations later. If only society could get out of its own way instead of creating artificial impossibilities when, in fact, almost anything is possible.

Dreams are not always rational or universally cheered. Conventional wisdom tells us that our ability to succeed is only limited by our ability to dream. But sometimes dreams are constrained by gender, age and race, too. They are diminished by circumstances.

Funk outlasted the false impossibilities. The man in the cowboy hat leaned in to yes. And for a few minutes on a summer morning, the dazzling wonder of life was unbound.

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