After half a century of waiting, Wally Funk, who trained for NASA’s Mercury program but was denied the opportunity to go into space, is finally spending her time among the stars.
She has been selected by the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, to accompany him, his brother and a still unknown auction winner on a suborbital trip on July 20.
Blue Origin announced Thursday that the 82-year-old will take fourth place in the maiden manned flight of its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft, along with Blue Origin founder Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos and the winner of an auction he paid for more than US $28 million for the opportunity. (The name of the auction winner has yet to be announced.)
Funk will fly into New Shepard as a “guest of honor,” according to a post on Bezos’ Instagram, which also shows Bezos revealing to Funk that she will be joining the mission.
Funk volunteered as a member of the “Mercury 13” program, also known as the “Women in Space Program,” in February 1961, which was a privately funded effort to begin training women to fly in early programs.
The 13 women in the program did all the training and testing performed by the seven men selected by NASA for the Mercury spaceflight program.
Funk became the youngest woman to graduate from the program, and was told that “she had done better and got the job done faster than any of the guys,” she said during a promotional video about her participation in Blue’s Origin flight.
Funk even spent 10 hours and 35 minutes inside a sensory deprivation tank in a Mercury 13 test, beating out famous astronaut John Glenn.
“I contacted NASA four times and said ‘I want to become an astronaut,’ but no one would accept me,” Funk said. I didn’t think I’d ever get up. Nothing got in my way. They say, ‘Wally, you’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Guess what, no matter what you are, you can still do it if you want to,’ and I like to do things that no one has done before.”
Funk has extensive experience flying airplanes, logging more than 19,600 flight hours and teaching more than 3,000 people how to fly private and commercial airplanes.
“I have the license for everything the FAA has. And I can leave you behind,” she joked.
But Funk won’t need all that experience to fly in Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle. The fully autonomous spacecraft and rocket system is designed to allow virtually anyone to become an astronaut after just a few hours of safety briefing and training at Blue Origin facilities in West Texas.
New Shepard’s suborbital flights reach roughly three times the speed of sound, roughly 3,700 kms per hour, and fly straight up until the rocket uses up most of its fuel.
The crew capsule will separate from the rocket in the early part of the trajectory and briefly continue upward before the capsule nearly hovers in the first part of its flight path, giving passengers a few minutes of weightlessness.
It works like an extended version of the weightlessness you experience when you reach the top of a roller coaster, just before gravity makes your car, or in this case, your space capsule, pull you back down.
The New Shepard capsule then deploys a large column of parachutes to slow its descent to less than 30 km per hour before it hits the ground, and Bezos and his fellow travelers will be even more cushioned by shock-absorbing seats.
According to a Funk profile on The Guardian In 2019, Funk previously purchased a ticket aboard the Virgin Galactic company-built suborbital spacecraft backed by Richard Branson, the direct competitor of Blue Origin who is still in the testing phase of their program and a date for their first commercial flight.
It is unclear if Funk will also stick with her plans to fly Virgin Galactic.
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