‘Mercury 13’ woman aviator Wally Funk will ride with Jeff Bezos on Blue Origin suborbital space trip

Jeff Bezos and Wally Funk
Female aviation pioneer Wally Funk goes wide-eyed when discussing spaceflight with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (Instagram Video / Jeff Bezos)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has rounded out the foursome for its first crewed suborbital spaceflight with a pioneering woman aviator: Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” women who went through testing for spaceflight but never flew to space.

Funk will sit alongside Bezos and his brother Mark, plus the yet-to-be-identified beneficiary of a $28 million charity auction, when Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship lifts off from its West Texas launch pad on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In a video posted today to Instagram and YouTube, Bezos talks with the 82-year-old Funk about the flight — and Funk goes wide-eyed when the world’s richest individual asks what she’ll do when it’s finished.

“I will say, ‘Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me,’ and give you a hug!” Funk replies as she throws her arms around Bezos.

Choosing Funk serves as a nod to America’s early space history — just as the name of Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceflight is a nod to the late Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space. It also serves to ensure that the crew for this month’s milestone flight won’t just be four white guys. Funk would become the oldest person to go into space, breaking the record set by the late senator-astronaut John Glenn when he flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1998 at the age of 77.

In a parallel universe, Funk might have been one of Glenn’s crewmates.

She was already a professional aviator when she volunteered for the privately funded Women in Space research program in 1961 at the age of 21. The program, which had the support of NASA but was not officially sponsored by the government, ran 13 women through the medical and psychological tests that NASA used for its male astronauts.

Some had hoped that the Mercury 13 would open the way for women to join NASA’s astronaut corps in the 1960s — but that didn’t happen until 1978, after the last Apollo moon mission and before the first space shuttle mission. (In the Apple TV+ alternate-history series “For All Mankind,” a moonwalking character named Molly Cobb is arguably inspired by Wally Funk and Mercury 13 crewmate Jerrie Cobb.)

Funk, the youngest member of the Mercury 13, went on to become the first female flight inspector at the Federal Aviation Administration, and one of the first female air safety investigators at the National Transportation and Safety Board. She has 19,600 hours of flight experience, and has taught more than 3,000 people to fly.

“Everything the FAA has, I’ve got the license for,” Funk said in the Instagram video. “And I can outrun you.”

Blue Origin says Funk’s selection rounds out the four-person crew for its first crewed flight. The 21-year-old company has put the autonomously controlled New Shepard spaceship through 15 uncrewed tests since 2015. After the 15th test in April, Bezos declared that “it’s time” to put people on board, and said that he and his brother would be among the first.

The identity of the person who won a seat in last month’s $28 million auction is expected to be revealed any day now. Proceeds from that sale will go to the Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s non-profit STEM educational foundation.

Funk and the rest of the foursome are due to go through a couple of days of pre-flight training at Blue Origin’s suborbital launch center near Van Horn, Texas, and then experience an up-and-down flight that will last about 10 minutes and rise above the 100-kilometer (62-mile) height that marks the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

At that altitude, the crew will experience about four minutes of weightlessness and get a spaced-out view of the curving Earth through the New Shepard craft’s giant picture windows. Then they’ll descend to a parachute-aided landing amid the rangeland of West Texas.

Years ago, Funk used the proceeds from her book and movie royalties as well as her inheritance to buy a ride into space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. Virgin Galactic is still gearing up to begin commercial operations sometime in the next year — but now Funk is in line to get a free ride to space, courtesy of Blue Origin and Bezos.

“I’ll love every second of it,” Funk says in the Instagram video. “Woohoo! Ha ha, I can hardly wait!”

Update for 10:45 a.m. PT July 1: We’ve corrected this story to refer to Apollo 11 rather than Apollo 13 — which, like the Mercury 13, never landed on the moon.

Tags
Space Blue origin Jeff bezos New shepard Space tourism Suborbital spaceflight Wally funk