Bezos invites 82-year-old aviation pioneer to join him for spaceflight


Credit: Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos meets with Wally Funk, who will become the oldest person to fly in space on a New Shepard suborbital flight scheduled for July 20. Credit: Jeff Bezos

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, is finally getting her chance to fly in space, thanks to Jeff Bezos.

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

Bezos’ 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.”

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

Unlike the shuttle, 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.

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.

The company 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 on-line auction.

The auction was held on June 12 with the as-yet-unnamed winner bidding $28 million for his or her seat. At the time, the company said a fourth passenger would be announced later, a mystery that was resolved with Thursday’s announcement.

“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 out run you!”

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 Virgin Galactic, a company owned by billionaire Richard Branson that is competing head-to-head with Blue Origin in the space tourism market.

“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, aboard a different spacecraft.

“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.”