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North Texans Hoping To Blast Off Into Space

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Jack Fink
Jack moved to Dallas after three years at WESH-TV, the NBC affil...
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NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Wally Funk has waited 50 years to get to the final frontier. The 71-year-old says, “I’ve worked so hard over the years to get there.”

At just 21-years-old , she was a member of the Mercury 13, a group of women who successfully passed a number of tests and experiments to see how women could handle the rigors of space.

“They had us drinking every cockamamie potion you could think of. They injected 10-degree water in my ear, that got my attention,” Funk recalled.

wally funk pilot North Texans Hoping To Blast Off Into Space

A photo of pilot Wally Funk from the 1960s. (credit: CBSDFW.COM)

Even though she passed the tests, it still wasn’t enough to propel her into space.

Funk had hoped to become an astronaut.  “I applied four times to NASA. They considered me, but I didn’t have an engineering degree. I was ahead of my time,” she said.

But now, all these years later, Funk says, “My dream is coming true.”

A strange looking aircraft will help her reach her dream. It’s a commercial spacecraft by Virgin Galactic called the White Knight 2. The aircraft is designed to rocket passengers up into the sub-orbit and then back to earth and it does it in just a couple of hours.

Funk says this is her chance to go to space. “Absolutely, I’ve been waiting to go for a long time.”

As part of the experience, customers receive a mock-up of the spacecraft. Funk says she even knows where she will sit. “I’m going to be sitting right here to the right hand side of the cockpit.”

Virgin Galactic is the only private company selling tickets to space, but owner and founder Sir Richard Branson predicts that will change. Branson says, “Lots of private companies like Virgin Galactic taking people into space is the thing of the future.”

CBS 11 News spoke with Sir Richard Branson last December, when he introduced his Virgin America airline at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.  “Private space ship companies like Virgin Galactic will build initially sub-orbital flights, then orbital flights, then flights into deep space,” he said.

Virgin Galactic hopes to get the White Knight 2 off the ground in 18 months, but there is no firm date set yet.

Matthew Upchurch, the CEO of Virtuoso in Fort Worth, is one of the first people who paid $200,000 to get a seat on the spaceship. “This really is the ultimate life experience,” he said. “I’ve had reporters ask me – ‘Isn’t this just a bunch of rich people getting their jollies?’ – particularly the British press. I said, everything that’s ever been done that’s new and exciting had to take pioneers.”

It’s the world’s largest luxury travel network, and the exclusive travel agent in the U.S. and the Americas for Virgin Galactic. Andrew Rocchio is an accredited space agent at Strong Travel in Dallas, which is a member of the Virtuoso network.

“A lot of people who call me, they’ve done around the world trips, they’ve climbed mountains, they’ve hit all continents, they’ve done ocean liner trips, but in many ways, it’s ground-breaking,” said Rocchio.

The “ground-breaking” White Knight 2 has two hulls – with the spacecraft in the center. The plane takes off, flies up to 55,000 feet, then the spacecraft separates from the mother ship, which returns to its home on earth: Spaceport America now under construction in New Mexico.

The spaceship blasts off from 55,000 feet and reaches 365,000 feet in just 90 seconds – three and a half times the speed of sound.

Funk says the trip will be exhilarating. “It’s going to be a real rush, because when they light off the rockets and go straight up, you’re sitting back, and from the centrifuges I’ve been in, the blood is going to go from here to here.”

Once in the sub-orbit, Upchurch says the spacecraft’s rocket will shut it’s engine — creating complete silence, and allowing passengers to float around inside. Upchurch wonders, “What’s that going to be like? To be in space, with this amazing silence, looking out the windows at your home. I can’t imagine that.”

For Wally Funk, the trip to space brings back memories. “I’ve worked so hard all these years to really get there. “I’m stoked! I’m ready! I’m ready tomorrow!”

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