Washington: By most accounts, Wally Funk should have been to space by now.
In 1961, Funk was the youngest member of the “Mercury 13”, a group of 13 women privately tested and trained by a team of aviation medical experts for NASA’s astronaut program at the height of the space race. But the program, which put the women through the same rigorous testing as the Mercury 7, the all-male team of original astronauts, was cancelled.
Jeff Bezos with Wally Funk.Credit:AP
Sixty years later, the 82-year-old is poised to become the oldest person to reach space. Jeff Bezos announced late on Thursday AEST in an Instagram post that Funk would be joining him, his brother, Mark, and the unnamed winner of an auction aboard Blue Origin’s first crewed spaceflight on July 20, the anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
Funk is a pioneer in aviation. She was the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector and first female National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator. She has logged 19,600 hours of flight time and taught more than 3000 people to fly, she says in Bezos’ Instagram video.
“Everything that the FAA has, I’ve got the licence for,” Funk says. “And, I can outrun you!”
In the video, Bezos describes the plan for the New Shepard’s journey to a wide-eyed Funk, down to the moment when the rocket returns to the desert surface and its doors open.
“We open the hatch and you step outside. What’s the first thing you say?” Bezos asks Funk. She doesn’t hesitate.
“I will say, ‘Honey, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me!” Funk declares, pulling Bezos into a bear hug.
Funk is Bezos’ “honoured guest” on the flight. Nearly 7600 bidders from 159 countries participated in the company’s non-profit foundation’s auction to win the other seat, which topped out at $US28 million ($37.5 million).
Members of the FLATs, also known as the Mercury 13, attend a shuttle launch in Florida in 1995. From left are Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman.Credit:NASA/AP
Blue Origin has said travellers must be able to endure three times the force of gravity for 2 minutes on ascent and 5½ times the force of gravity for a few seconds on the way down. Participants must be between 152 and 193 centimetres tall and weigh between 49.8 and 101 kilograms.
As a young girl, Funk used to jump off the roof of her parents’ barn in a Superman cape, pretending to fly. She loved to build model planes and ships, became an “expert marksman” at 14 and competed for the United States in slalom and downhill skiing. She’s been flying since 1957. She is also an antique car enthusiast and “avid zipliner”, according to her website.
When NASA finally opened its programs to women in 1976, Funk applied three times and received three rejections. But she has never been the type to let anything stand in her way, she says in the video.
“I like to do things that nobody has ever done.”
The July 20 flight would make Bezos the first of the billionaire “space barons” to go to space, a significant milestone for him and Blue Origin, which lags behind Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the competition for billions of dollars in NASA and Defence contracts and which flies a more powerful rocket capable of taking people and supplies into orbit.
Bezos has long been fascinated with space. An avid science fiction reader and big Star Trek fan as a child, he has called watching the Apollo 11 moon landing a seminal moment for him, even though he was just 5 years old at the time. He chose “Goddard” as the middle name for one of his sons in homage to Robert Goddard, the founder of modern rocketry.
The New Shepard is named for Alan Shepard, who became the first American to go to space in 1961. Like that first suborbital flight, New Shepard shoots straight up, flying past 60 miles to reach the edge of space before falling back to Earth. The flight takes about 10 minutes in all, with a few minutes of weightlessness in space.
Neither Musk nor Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson have ridden on their companies’ rockets, though there’s speculation Branson may be trying to beat Bezos with a secretive launch in the coming weeks. In late June, Virgin Galactic won FAA approval to take customers to space, making it the first spaceline (as in airline in space) to cross that hurdle.
In 2010, Funk put down $US200,000 for a future Virgin Galactic flight. She’s spent years waiting and visiting Spaceport America, anticipating what she thought would be her first trip to space. But by the time she gets to cash in that ticket, she’ll already be an astronaut.
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