Only a few months ago, Blue Origin, the space company founded and funded by Jeff Bezos, didn’t figure it would be making history on July 20, 2021. But that’s what happened.
It was the day Mary Wallace (Wally) Funk went to space.
Oh, yes, yes, Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was in the capsule, too, along with 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, his first paying space customer. And Jeff’s brother, who he called “the funniest man in space,” a compliment contested by any number of experienced space reporters in West Texas today for the launch. (Their evidence is the 2 Funny Astronauts podcast hosted by Mike Massimino and Garrett Reisman.)
But while sending the world’s richest human to space is a striking gambit, and the advent of commercial space tourism is a milestone, Wally Funk is sui generis. In a story that is being told and retold in a thousand media outlets this week, in 1960, Funk was part of the original Mercury 13, a group trained to become the first female astronauts. But NASA would not sign on to the program, and for the past 60 years, Funk, an expert pilot and a diligent investigator of aviation safety, became obsessed with occupying the spaceship seat denied her. In 2010, she signed up for a $200,000 place aboard Richard Branson’s VSS Unity, expecting a Virgin Galactic suborbital flight sometime that decade. Frustration built as her date never got closer. Then, out of the blue, Bezos offered her a space on today’s New Shepard launch.
As the world learned today, she was more than ready. Her fellow crew members repeatedly claimed that the octogenarian was the most prepared and most fit of the bunch of them, and certainly today her energy was clear to all. Even as the crew was strapped in the capsule awaiting liftoff—a time when one would forgive a bit of anxiety—she was impatiently straining toward the Kármán line. “I felt so charged,” she said later.
“We had a six-minute hold, and she was wondering what was taking so long,” said Bezos. “What the hell! We’re burning daylight!”
Sure enough, when New Shepard took flight and climbed 65 miles to space, she was out of her seat and performing crazy maneuvers. “Ohhh! I love it! I love it!” she cried, as she and her crewmates cavorted in what looked like a mutant performance of the Pilobolus dance troupe.
During the post-flight press conference, she owned the room from the moment she walked on stage. (Considering that the room was “the barn,” a facility on the Blue Origin base big enough to hold the New Shepard rocket behind her, this was saying something.) Instead of strolling to her seat like the others, she moved to the edge of her stage and spread her arms, a victory move as bold as Megan Rapinoe’s. Every time she spoke, she stood up, held the mic to her face and boomed her comment. The crowd, which included reporters, friends and family of the crew, and the two daughters of Alan Shepard, ate it up.