We human beings can determine our own fate. From tiny short-term incidents to important life events, we can steer ourselves to a desired outcome or at least have some say in the result. But covid has changed this completely - alongside the fear of the virus itself, the pandemic has limited our lives personally and professionally. Our sense of self-determination has been thrown into disarray. Around the month of April when we were seeing life slowly getting back to normal in small ways, I was feeling a little bit of hope. But then another wave of the virus engulfed us, and I found myself at a point where life held no hope.
Allow me to set the stage. That day, I was walking through a neighborhood shopping complex. The once vibrant place was deserted. I stopped at my favorite bookstore. This is the store where I would spend hours roaming the bookshelves, reading crafted lines that caught my fancy or participating in lively discussions with reading groups or fan clubs. But as I stood outside, I saw that the store was devoid of any human being, and I thought when will life get back to normal? Then I saw the sign hanging at the store – “STORE IS CLOSING.” My heart stopped; as I stared at the sign I wondered - will life ever get back to normal?
So, there I was, walking down the street, completely disinterested, when something caught my eye. It was a colorful banner – “A parade and celebration by Grapevine city council to honor Wally Funk.” I had never heard of Wally but the bold line in the flyer, “Wally Funk is a true trailblazer, she propels not only herself but the entire world into the realm of commercial space travel” appealed to me. I attended the event and after I heard the story of Wally, life took on a new meaning for me. Friends, I came out a changed man.
Wally Funk was the youngest of an all-woman space mission dubbed "Mercury 13." In the year 1961, thirteen women were taking rigorous physical exams to become the country’s first space travelers and American astronauts. These women were as good and as capable as their male counterparts but none of them were selected. It turned out that NASA didn’t want any women astronauts in those days. Wally was only twenty two years old when her dream of flying into space crashed hard to the ground. But she never gave up on her dream. She kept applying to NASA and NASA kept rejecting her. Throughout her life she faced many hardships, but she kept going , setting her sights higher and to do better than whoever had gone before her. When NASA rejected her, she became a flight instructor and then an air safety investigator and then a renowned pilot trainer. Each time she seized the opportunity to get more flight testing, and with every opportunity she proved her capabilities for space travel. She never stopped learning , she never stopped growing and she never stopped pursuing spaceflight! That day, during the celebration at Grapevine, while addressing the crowd, Wally was telling her admirers and me that anything was possible. “Anything at all. You can be an astronaut and go into space. You put your mind to it and there is absolutely nothing too hard for you.” Anything? It was a lightbulb moment and suddenly life took on a new meaning for me. I will go to space someday! I don’t know when, but it was the knowledge that I could that made me euphoric. Wally gave me the greatest gift anyone could give to another person; the gift of hope, anticipation and excitement!
On July 20, 2021, Wally Funk blasted off on Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft and became the oldest person to go to space; she is eighty-two years old. Six decades ago when she was in her twenties, NASA denied her the chance to go into space – she could have been the first American to orbit the earth, the first female astronaut in space or the first human being on the Moon. Sixty years later, that wrong has being righted – this time not by NASA but by another fellow human being – Jeff Bezos. It was a real gift to a real person by the richest man in the world. Jeff Bezos dreams of a world with a trillion people living in space. “We’ll develop other planets, leaving Earth a beautiful place to be” he would say. Bezos and his team at Blue Origin worked together helping Wally fulfil her lifelong dream of being an astronaut. I heard the amazing story told by Audrey Powers who was also invited by the Grapevine city council. All the way through the event, the tears kept coursing down my face, up until the very end. Only later, much later, did I recognize that those were tears of joy, of recognition that we human beings are tied together through hardship and happiness.
Towards the end , I received a gift by the Grapevine city council. It was a replica of the pin worn by Wally Funk on her Blue Origin's New Shepard Mission. As I proudly held the gift, I made a promise that I will never ever doubt the strength of humanity. I would never again be tempted to lose hope, and I would never let the pandemic define me. And Wally, wherever you are, thank you for teaching me what faith, grit and determination can do and thank you for opening my eyes to the world of space travel - one day I will be there. Life has always been and will always be beautiful. Friends, life is good, and it will get better just as it always has.