Famed Aviatrix to Join Bezos Brothers on Space Ride as Branson Tries to Upstage it All

Famed Aviatrix to Join Bezos Brothers on Space Ride as Branson Tries to Upstage it All

Wally Funk will finally get a chance to fly into space on July 20. One of the “Mercury 13” women who participated in rigorous physical and psychological tests in the hope of becoming NASA astronauts in the earliest days of the U.S. space program, she has been waiting six decades. Thanks to Jeff Bezos and his New Shepard rocket, she now has less than three weeks to go. But another mega-billionaire is trying to upstage the news by announcing his own flight into space nine days before Bezos.

Best known as the founder of Amazon.com, Bezos also is the man behind Blue Origin, which is developing New Shepard, a suborbital rocket named after the first American to reach space, Alan Shepard.

After 15 flight tests with no one aboard, Blue Origin is finally ready to put people on New Shepard’s next flight, scheduled for July 20, the anniversary of the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon in 1969.

Bezos decided he wanted to be on that first flight himself. The capsule can accommodate six people, but will carry only four this time. He invited his brother, Mark, to come along, and a third seat was auctioned.  The high bid was $28 million for the 11-minute ride up to and back from space. Blue Origin has not revealed the name of the winning bidder, but today announced who will fill the fourth seat — Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk.

Bezos posted a video of the moment he invited Funk to join him.

Now 82, Funk participated in studies at the Lovelace Clinic in the early 1960s similar to those use to select NASA’s first  astronauts.  The tests were not part of NASA’s program, but were conducted under the leadership of the same man, William Randolph Lovelace and many of the women thought passing the tests could lead to their selection into the astronaut corps.  NASA was not accepting women at that time, however. Women were not allowed into the astronaut program until 1978.

As she says in the video, Funk went on to a distinguished career in aviation.

I have 19,600 flying hours. I have taught over 3,000 people to fly — private, commercial, instrument, flight engineer, airline transport, gliding — everything that the FAA has, I’ve got the license for. And I can outrun you.

As today’s news unfolded, it came to pass that she had purchased a ticket to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, another suborbital system designed to take passengers into space. Virgin Galactic is owned by another mega-billionaire, Richard Branson. It has flown company employees to space already, but like New Shepard is on the cusp of flying paying passengers.

Neither New Shepard nor SpaceShipTwo go into orbit.  These are very brief flights above the imaginary line separating air and space. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic define that boundary differently.  Blue Origin uses the international standard of 100 kilometers (62 miles). Virgin Galactic and the FAA use 80 kilometers (50 miles), the same as was used at the time of Shepard’s flight in 1961. There are reasonable arguments on both sides as to which is the better definition.

Branson has made no secret of his intention to fly on his SpaceShipTwo. Ever since Bezos announced July 20 as the date for his flight on New Shepard, rumors have swirled that Branson would try to beat him to the punch.

Indeed, late this afternoon Virgin Galactic announced Branson will make a flight on July 11.  In addition to the two pilots, three other Virgin Galactic employees will join him:  Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor, on her second space mission; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.

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