Legendary aviator to join Bezos for space flight

Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer and one of the 13 female fliers who were tested but ultimately barred from NASA’s initially all-male astronaut corps in the 1960s, is finally getting her chance to fly in space, thanks to Jeff Bezos.

Future space tourists led by Wally Funk
Wally Funk a the Spaceport America runway dedication ceremony near Las Cruces, New Mexico on October 22, 2010.  MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Funk has accepted Bezos’ invitation to join him, his brother Mark and the yet-to-be named winner of an online auction aboard Bezos’ New Shepard spacecraft when it blasts off on its first passenger flight July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

At 82, Funk will become the oldest person to ever fly in space, eclipsing a record set by John Glenn in 1998 when he flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery at age 77.

The Amazon founder’s space company, Blue Origin, made the announcement Thursday.

“I didn’t think that I would ever get to go up,” Funk said in an Instagram video posted by Bezos. “They said, ‘Wally, 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. And I like to do things that nobody’s ever done.”

The New Shepard capsule was designed and built by Blue Origin, a commercial venture founded by Bezos in 2000 to develop both sub-orbital and orbit-class rockets.

The New Shepard is a sub-orbital spacecraft designed to carry space tourists, researchers and experiments on short-up-and-down flights to the edge of space, providing three to four minutes of weightlessness before plunging back to Earth for a parachute-descent to touchdown.

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Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and crew capsule blasting off from the company’s test site near Van Horn, Texas. After 15 test flights, owner Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, the as-yet-unnamed winner of an online auction and aviation pioneer Wally Funk will make up the spacecraft’s first crew when it blasts off on its 16th flight July 20. Blue Origin

NASA and the Air Force consider an altitude of 50 miles to be the “boundary” between space and the discernible atmosphere. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, a governing body for aviation-related sports and records, considers 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, the edge of space. The New Shepard spacecraft meets both criteria.

Blue Origin has carried out 15 test flights of its reusable single-stage New Shepard rocket and capsule, all of them unpiloted and all successful except for a booster landing mishap on the first flight.

Blue Origin announced its first passenger flight on May 5, the 60th anniversary of astronaut Alan Shepard’s launch to become the first American in space. One month later, on June 7, Bezos announced that he and his brother would blast off along with the winner of an online auction.

The auction was held on June 12 with the as-yet-unnamed winner bidding $28 million for a seat aboard the New Shepard. At the time, the company said a fourth passenger would be announced later, a mystery that ended when Funk accepted Bezos’ invitation to fly.

“In 1961, Wally Funk was at the top of her class as part of the ‘Mercury 13’ Woman in Space Program,” Bezos wrote in his Instagram post. “Despite completing their training, the program was cancelled, 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.”

Funk said she has logged 19,600 hours flying time across her aviation career, taught more than 3,000 people how to fly, and “everything that the FAA has, I’ve got the license for. And I can outrun you!”

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Wally Funk as a pilot in the 1960s. She was one of the “Mercury 13” female trainees rejected by NASA in the early years of the astronaut corps. via Blue Origin

In an ironic twist, Funk told CBS News in 2013 that she had not given up her dream of flying in space and hoped to fly aboard a sub-orbital spaceplane developed by a rival company, Virgin Galactic, which is owned by billionaire Richard Branson.

“That is my quest,” she said in the CBS interview. “Most people would have given up by now, but I’m not. I love flying. That’s my job. That’s what I love. And I’m not a quitter.”

And now, her long quest is one step away from reality.

“I can’t tell people that are watching how fabulous I feel to have been picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip,” she said in the Bezos Instagram post. “I’ll love every second of it. I can hardly wait.”