Former Space Systems Division Commander Dies
By Alicia Garges , SMC Public Affairs
/ Published February 01, 2012
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Ben Funk, a former commander of the Space Systems Division and a pioneer in developing the United State's ballistic missile program and launch vehicles for NASA's Mercury and Gemini spacecraft recently died at his home in Long Beach. He was 98-years old - dying three months shy of his 99th birthday.
Born in Colorado, the general attended University of Denver. During his time at the university, he flew in a Fokker Tri-motor during a fraternity event and decided to leave college to become a pilot. He earned his wings in 1936 and was commissioned a year later. During World War II, he flew the B-24 bomber and played a pivotal role in improving the B-17 and B-24 aircraft and developing the B-29 Superfortress. The last time he flew was at the age of 92, in 2005, when he piloted a PBY Catalina over southern England.
As a colonel, he attended the Air Force Institute of Technology earning a bachelor's degree in 1948 and a year later graduated from Harvard's Graduate School of Business Advanced Management Program. The general earned his first star in 1953 during a tour in Germany.
In 1956, he was assigned to Los Angeles as Air Material Command's deputy director for ballistic missiles and chief of the Ballistic Missiles Office where he worked with Gen. Bernard Schriever. When the Ballistic Missile Office was elevated to command status and renamed the Ballistic Missile Center, Funk was the center's first commander. He oversaw the development of the intermediate-range Thor and long-range Atlas missiles. The general was the recipient of the first missile badge in 1958.
During a 2002 interview with Dr. Harry Waldron, Space and Missile Systems Center historian, the general talked about how he came to be involved in missile and space programs.
"For a year, I was the Inspector General of the Air Materiel Command. One of the last inspections I made was of the Air Materiel Command support to General Schriever and the ballistic missile program. When I inspected his operation--this was in the spring of 1955--I knew all of the best procurement people in the Air Materiel Command. I inspected the operation that was supporting General Schriever, AMC at that time, and I felt they didn't have enough good people, that they really were not doing the job that this high priority program needed from Air Materiel Command. I wrote a rather critical report of the Air Materiel Command support of General Schriever's operation," he said.
"I took my report back to Gen. Rawlings, and he read it through. I had recommended several things. First of all I said we need more people. We should almost triple the size of that operation. We need better-qualified people. General Schriever has the highest priority in ARDC. He could get any man he wants right now. It's a high priority program and he has the priority to get the best people. We need more people and better qualified people than we now have to do the job properly. He read the report, and he called me in after reading the report. He said, I've read your report. You are the sergeant complaining about the mess. I'm going to make you mess sergeant. You go out there and run that operation."
General Funk returned to Los Angeles in 1962 and completed his Air Force career as commander of the Space Systems Division. During his tenure, he oversaw the development of the Titan III, which was used to launch military satellites and manned spacecraft during the Mercury and Gemini programs. For his accomplishments, he was presented NASA's Space Achievement Award from President John Kennedy in 1963.
"Now the one thing about my tenure, during most of my tenure we were launching astronauts. I had to spend an awful lot of my time, not on Air Force matters particularly, but on support to NASA in making sure that our Atlases were man-rated. We tried to make them as safe as can be. We put in duplicative guidance and control systems. We called it being 'man-rated'. In terms of guidance and control, we'd have duplicate systems to take over. Of course, if there was a major power plant failure, there was nothing that you could do about that. We didn't lose any astronauts," he said in the 2002 interview.
"We got significant recognition at the end of the Mercury program. But, when you look at the Gemini program, three-fourths of the hardware, the Atlas, the Agena target vehicle, and the Titan II--which launched the Gemini capsule--were all Air Force developments and Air Force responsibilities, and my launch teams were doing the launching back at the cape (Cape Canaveral). I've talked to other historians about this, and it seems inconceivable to me that when you read the history of the Gemini program, NASA did it all. You don't hear (about) the Air Force. I thank God, I really do thank God, that we didn't lose any astronauts. That was a tremendous accomplishment. Those missiles were not designed to launch people, (but) we tried to make them as safe as we could."
The general retired from the Air Force in 1966 and worked for 10 years as an executive with the Lockheed Missiles and Space Corporation. In 2006, he was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.
He is survived by a son and daughter, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A memorial service for Gen Funk will be held at 11:00 AM in St. Luke's Episcopal Church at the corner of Atlantic Ave. and Seventh St. in Long Beach, March 3. A reception will follow. In lieu of flowers, his family is requesting that donations be made to the Alzheimer's Association or the University of Denver.