This month, two billionaires will be flying to space aboard their very own commercial launch vehicles. The first to go will be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who will be a passenger aboard the inaugural crewed flight of the New Shepard on July 20th. Mark Bezos, Jeff’s brother, will be accompanying him on this flight, as will the person who won the auction that wrapped up on June 12th (they bid $28 million for the seat).
On July 1st, Blue Origin announced that the fourth passenger on this historic flight would be Wally Funk, a pioneer in aerospace who trained to become an astronaut back in the 1960s. As part of the “Mercury 13” Woman in Space Program, Funk was one of several qualified test pilots and graduated at the top of her class. And now, sixty years later, she is once again a pioneer since she is the oldest person that has ever flown to space.
The announcement was made in a video shared via Blue Origin’s website and Jeff Bezos’ Instagram account. In it, Funk relates how she has been flying all of her life, and how the opportunity to go to space after all this time will be “the best thing that ever happened” to her. We also see Bezos describing what the flight will entail, particularly the four minutes of weightlessness they’ll experience after the crew capsule separates from the first stage launcher.
“In 1961, Wally Funk was at the top of her class as part of the “Mercury 13” Woman in Space Program,” said Bezos in a written statement accompanying the video. “Despite completing their training, the program was canceled, and none of the thirteen flew. It’s time. Welcome to the crew, Wally. We’re excited to have you fly with us on July 20th as our honored guest.”
The Mercury 13 program (1960-1961) saw 13 female pilots go through the same medical tests and training as the male astronauts selected for NASA’s Mercury program. These women were all experienced pilots who did better than their male counterparts in some aspects of training and (in some cases) even had more flying time. Funk was at the top of her class and outperformed the male astronauts in every category, but never got to go to space. As she related in the video:
“I have been flying forever and I have 19600 flying hours. I have taught over 3000 people to fly, private, commercial, instrument, flight engineer, airline transport, gliding – everything that FAA has, I’ve got the license for. And I could outrun you! (laughs)”
“Back in the 60s, I was in the Mercury 13 Program. They asked me, ‘do you want to be an astronaut?’ I said, ‘YES!’ They had told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys. So I got a hold of NASA four times. I said I want to become an astronaut. But nobody would take me. I didn’t think that I would ever get to go up.”
None of the women who trained for the Mercury 13 program would go to space and the program was canceled. Part of the reason had to do with the rules governing astronaut selection that NASA had instituted in 1958 for the sake of the Mercury program. Initially, NASA believed that the best candidates would be pilots, submarine crews, or members of expeditions to the Arctic or Antarctica.
This presented them with a rather large pool of potential candidates, which meant processing them would be time-consuming and expensive. President Eisenhower intervened and decided that military test pilots would be the best candidates, which greatly simplified the selection process. However, since it was the early 60s and women were not permitted to undergo combat training, which would not be reversed until 1973.
In the Soviet Union, women were trained to become cosmonauts and sent the first female astronaut – Valentina Tereshkova – to space on June 16th, 1963 (the Vostok 6 mission). However, neither the Soviets nor NASA would not send another female astronaut to space until 1982-3. These were Svetlana Savitskaya and Sally Ride, who became the second and third women to fly to space on Aug. 19th, 1982, and June 18th,1983 (respectively).
Despite the obstacles she had to contend with, Funk never stopped flying and never let other people’s conceptions of gender stop her from doing what she loved.
“Nothing has ever gotten in my way. They said, ‘Well, you’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Guess what, doesn’t matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it and I like to do things that nobody has ever done. I can’t tell people how fabulous I feel about to have been picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip. And I’m going to love every second of it. I can hardly wait!”
The first crewed flight of the New Shepard (dubbed RSS First Step Crew Capsule) will take place on Tuesday, July 20th, less than two weeks from now! With its four passengers, the vehicle will take off from the company’s launch facility (Launch Site One) near the town of Van Horn in West Texas. Even before Funk was selected, the mission was garnering considerable attention, which was certainly the point!
In recent years, Blue Origin has lost ground to its competitors in the commercial space sector, particularly SpaceX. Whereas Blue Origin has fallen behind with the development of the New Shepard and the New Glenn (a two-stage orbital launch vehicle), SpaceX has been making regular launches with their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and is currently developing the Starship and Superheavy launch system.
This is believed to be one of the main reasons why Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon so that he could focus more on his other projects, particularly Blue Origin. Since that time, the development process for the New Shepard has gotten back on track, and the upcoming crewed flight will be a historic milestone. In short, Bezos’ could be the first billionaire to go into space aboard a launch vehicle owned and operated by his own company.
His decision to fly aboard the New Shepard has caused quite the media circus, and for multiple reasons. For starters, the fact that Bezos is willing to put his own safety (and that of family and friends) on the line demonstrates a level of confidence in his company and its launch vehicles. Second, Bezos’ decision to go to space has garnered considerable media attention and caused competitor Richard Branson (CEO of Virgin Galactic) to expedite his own timetable.
At present, Virgin Galactic plans to conduct a crewed flight test with the VSS Unity this weekend, Sunday, July 11th. Barring unfavorable weather conditions, this will mean that Branson will beat Bezos to the punch by nine days and will become the first billionaire to go to space. Either way, the way Bezos has come to dominate the news cycle with his decision to fly aboard this maiden crewed flight is a definite win for him and his company.
From being behind in the new space race to dominating the news cycle, Bezos is turning things around for Blue Origin. And while his decision to invite Wally Frank was certainly influenced by a desire to maintain his dominance in the news cycle, the invitation could not have gone to a more deserving person. After sixty years of hard work and trailblazing, Wally Funk will finally realize her dream of going to space!
It’s good to know that historic opportunities that went unfulfilled, especially where discrimination and legal barriers were concerned, can still be righted. By making himself a part of that, Bezos has clearly achieved a major PR win. More importantly, the woman who could have been among the first to go space will join the exclusive club of women who have been to space!
Further Reading: Blue Origin