Virgin Galactic launched Richard Branson into space on July 11. Another commercial launch is heading into space tomorrow. The era of commercial space travel is here. And one of the most deserving people is heading to space tomorrow.
On September 8, 2000, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched a space exploration company called Blue Origin. His goal was to iteratively explore space and orbital spaceflight. In the past two decades, Blue Origin has been hard at work (a bit more privately than Elon Musk’s SpaceX) building rockets and designing engines.
The naming conventions used by Blue Origin call back to the history of the United States space program. The first crew-capable vehicle, called New Shepard, is named after Alan Shepard, the second man (and first American) to go to space. Shepard also walked on the moon in 1971. A heavy lift vehicle is under development called New Glenn, named after famous astronaut John Glenn.
New Shepard is a reusable launch vehicle designed to launch a crew capsule above the Karman line into space followed by a safe parachute landing in west Texas.
After two decades of testing and 15 test flights, New Shepard will take to the skies tomorrow with four humans aboard: Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos (Jeff’s younger brother), 18-year-old Oliver Daemon (who will be the youngest ever to fly to space), and a passenger whose flight to space is long overdue. There have been countless stories told about Bezos being on the first flight of his company’s vehicle but I think the more interesting story is the fourth passenger: 82-year-old Wally Funk.
Wally Funk is an aviation legend. Born in 1939, she was addicted to aviation almost since birth, climbing into the seat of a DC-3 at only a year old. By age nine she took her first flying lesson.
Wally was an accomplished student but was not allowed to take engineering classes due to her gender. She became a licensed pilot in 1958 and graduated from Oklahoma State with a degree in secondary education.
Her aviation career is distinguished. She became a flight instructor at age 20 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, but was not able to secure a pilot slot at a major airline because of her gender.
The Mercury 13
Dr. Randy Lovelace, a Harvard-educated medical doctor, had a long history of aviation research. He was appointed chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences in 1958. In 1959, as part of his duties evaluating astronaut candidates, Lovelace sponsored a program to evaluate the suitability of female candidates for astronaut training.
Twenty-five females were invited to the study, nineteen enrolled, and thirteen graduated. Among what would be known as the Mercury 13 (a tip of the cap to the Mercury 7 astronauts) was 21-year-old Wally Funk, the youngest member of the class. Funk’s record was, as expected, exemplary. She even scored better than John Glenn on some tests!
Sadly, the Mercury 13 program was canceled and it would be many more years before a female went into space. By the time NASA began accepting female candidates into the astronaut program in the 1970s, Wally Funk was turned down for not having an engineering degree and for not being a test pilot.
The first female Space Shuttle pilot was Lt. Col. Eileen Collins in 1995. By this time Wally Funk no longer qualified for the program because of her age.
But Wally Funk would have one more chance: commercial spaceflight.
A last chance. Wally Funk is going to space!
In 2012, Wally Funk was one of the first people to purchase a ticket on a Virgin Galactic spaceflight. But she had yet to go into space when she was paid a visit by Jeff Bezos at her Roanoke, Texas, home. Cameras were rolling when he told her the news.
At 82 years old, Wally Funk is finally going to space!
I’m looking forward to driving out near Van Horn, Texas, to see her fly into space tomorrow. If you’d like to tune in, Blue Origin will have a live webcast beginning around 6:30am CDT with the launch expected roughly around 8:00am CDT.
Go Blue Origin! Go Wally!