02 Jul 2021: 82-year-old Funk to join Bezos's space trip, ending 60-year wait
Aerospace pioneer Wally Funk, 82, will be joining Amazon boss Jeff Bezos on Blue Origin's crewed space flight of its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft. Blue Origin announced on Thursday that Funk will fill the fourth spot in the crew along with Bezos's brother Mark and the winner of an auction who paid $28 million for the flight. Here are more details.
Announcement: Bezos invites Funk as 'honored guest'
Bezos invited Funk as an "honored guest" on the flight, announcing the news through a video on Instagram. In the two-minute clip, Bezos asks Funk how it would feel to finally become an astronaut. Funk hugs him and says, "I would say, 'Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me!'" "I didn't think I'd ever get to go up," she says.
History: Funk joined 'Women in Space Program' in 1961
In 1961, Funk had joined the "Mercury 13" program (also known as the "Women in Space Program") to train to go to space. Funk was the youngest among 13 women in the program and "had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys." She had even spent 10 hours and 35 minutes inside a sensory deprivation tank, outperforming John Glenn.
Fact: Funk now set to beat Glenn's record
Glenn—who died in 2016—became the first American to orbit Earth. Meanwhile, Wally Funk never got to fly to space. Now, at 82, she is slated to be the oldest person to fly to space, breaking Glenn's record, who last went to space at 77.
Program: Funk's program was privately funded
Glenn was part of NASA's Mercury program, which attempted to send men to space. Funk's program was privately funded and wanted to see how women would fare against the pressures of spaceflight. The doctor in charge, Randy Lovelace, was affiliated with NASA. Lovelace believed women are better suited for spaceflight as they are smaller, lighter, and require less food and oxygen.
Cancellation: Military officials opposed idea of women in space
While Lovelace wanted to conduct more tests, military officials were not excited about the idea. At a 1962 congressional hearing, Glenn also said, "The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."
Life: Funk went on to garner other achievements
Notably, Funk had been fascinated by planes all her life. She acquired a pilot's license as a teenager and became the first female instructor at her Oklahoma training school in 1960. She went on to serve as the first female air safety investigator for the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) and the first woman to be an inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Fact: Funk's later attempts to join NASA faced other hurdles
Later, Funk applied to NASA's astronaut corps four times. However, NASA wanted its astronauts to have engineering degrees, which she did not have. Today, NASA does not have these requirements and neither is it the gatekeeper with the arrival of private players into the scene.
Fact: Here is Bezos's video announcement
Flight: Blue Origin flight to take off on July 20
On July 20, Funk will fly to space with Jeff Bezos for the first time. The flight will roughly follow the same route as the 1961 suborbital journey of Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space. One of Blue Origin's rockets is also named after him. July 20 also marks the anniversary of the first moon landing in 1969.
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