Sixty-two years ago, NASA’s Mercury Project selected the first group of American astronauts. Among that group of seven men were names such as Alan Shepard and John Glenn. The Mercury Seven, as they came to be known, all went into space. Around the same time, a private program was putting women pilots through some of the same testing and training the men were undergoing for NASA. This group of women were known as the Mercury 13, but none of them went into space. But, thanks to Jeff Bezos and the billionaire space race, that’s about to change: 82-year old Wally Funk is finally getting her day in the sun—so to speak.
In a video post on his Instagram account, Bezos told Funk, an original member of the Mercury 13, that she’ll be accompanying him on the first flight of the New Shepard capsule on July 20. Bezos asked her what she’d say after a safe return to Earth.
“I would say, ‘Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me,’ ” Funk said, hugging Bezos.
Space history will be made
Funk will become the oldest person to go into space, surpassing John Glenn who, at 77, made a return to space on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. The suborbital New Shepard, developed by Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, will take off from Texas for an 11-minute journey. After launch, the reusable rocket will land while the detachable crew capsule will parachute to the ground. Also along for this first ride with Funk and Bezos will be the billionaire’s brother, Mark, and the as-yet-unknown winner of a $28 million auction.
Funk recalled what it was like to join the Mercury 13 in 1961. “They asked me, ‘Do you want to be an astronaut?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ ”
But while the Mercury 13 tested as well, or better, than the men in many tests, NASA didn’t have interest in sending women to space at the time. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to go up.”
Funk is a pioneer in aviation. She was the first female Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) inspector and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). “I’ve been flying forever. I have 19,600 flying hours,” Funk said.
The billionaire space race is heating up
Interestingly, Bezos won’t be the next billionaire going to space. Hours after Funk’s flight announcement, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson went on Twitter to announce he’s also going to space. The British billionaire plans to be on board a test flight of his company’s rocket plane on July 11. Virgin Galactic plans to start offering commercial space flights in 2022, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX is starting private flights in September. Blue Origin says details on New Shepard seat sales will be available soon. Ironically, Funk paid $200,000 for a Virgin Galactic ticket in 2010. There’s no word on whether she’s looked into Virgin Galactic’s refund policy.
At the end of the Bezos Instagram post, Funk was told she’s going to be an astronaut. After 60 years of waiting, she only had a one-word reply.