Wally Funk Gets Her Astronaut Pin (oh, and Jeff Bezos, too)

Wally Funk Gets Her Astronaut Pin (oh, and Jeff Bezos, too)

Wally Funk got her astronaut pin today, six decades after she first expected to be chosen to fly into space. The 82-year-old member of the Mercury 13 soared above 100 kilometers in Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket along with Jeff Bezos, his brother, Mark, and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen.

As the designation implies, New Shepard-16 (NS-16) was the 16th time Blue Origin has launched a New Shepard rocket into space. But it is the first time it carried passengers. The suborbital rockets and crew capsules are reusable. This was the third trip for these.

Though plenty of media attention focused on the Bezos brothers — Amazon.com and Blue Origin founder Jeff (57) and Mark (53) — Funk and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen certainly got their fair share. They are the oldest and youngest people to fly to space.

Daemen was publicly assigned to the crew just a few days ago. He replaced the winner of an auction who bid $28 million for the privelege of flying on this first New Shepard human spaceflight, but then backed out due to a “schedule conflict.” He or she will fly sometime in the future.

Daemen’s father, Joes, founder and CEO of Somerset Capital Partners, also participated in the auction. Though he did not win, he got an early spot on the list for subsequent flights. When the winner opted out, his name moved up.

Although Blue Origin stresses this was a commercial spaceflight with its first paying customer, it is not disclosing how much Daemen paid and continues to decline to name the price to buy a seat. Bezos did say the company already has $100 million in sales and they need to ramp up production and the flight rate to accommodate the demand. Chief of Astronaut Sales Ariane Cornell urged anyone interested to send her an email.

Funk was the star of the show, not just because of her story of waiting 60 years, but her unbridled joy, energy, and enthusiasm. At 82, she surpassed John Glenn as the oldest astronaut. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, but made a second flight on the space shuttle in 1998 when he was 77.

Mary Wallace (Wally) Funk after receiving her Blue Origin astronaut pin. Screengrab July 20, 2021.

Mercury 13 refers to a group of women who went through and passed astronaut tests similar to those used to select NASA’s first astronauts, the Mercury 7, that included Glenn. The tests were not sponsored by NASA, but the women expected it was a pathway to the astronaut corps. NASA did not accept women as astronauts until 1978, however.

Alan Ladwig, director of NASA’s Space Flight Participant program in the 1980s and author of See You in Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight, pointed out in a tweet today that there is considerable confusion about what that series of tests was all about.

Whatever the past, Funk was exuberant today, as were her companions. Former NASA astronaut Jeff Ashby, now Blue Origin’s Senior Director of Safety and Mission Assurance, bestowed Blue Origin astronaut pins on each of them during a post-landing press conference.

NS-16 crew gets Blue Origin astronaut pins (L-R); crew members Oliver Daemen, Mark Bezos, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk; Blue Origin Director of Astronaut Sales Ariane Cornell; Blue Origin Senior Director of Safety and Mission Assurance Jeff Ashby.

NS-16 lifted off from its launch site near Van Horn, TX at about 9:11 am ET and ascended to an altitude of 351,210 feet or 107 kilometers Mean Sea Level (MSL). That is above the Kármán line at 100 kilometers used by the international organization that confers sports aviation records, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), to delineate between air and space. The FAA, which promotes, facilitates and regulates U.S. commercial spaceflight, uses a lower limit of 80 kilometers, which is also used by Blue Origin competitor Virgin Galactic.

Although Blue Origin uses 100 kilometers, New Shepard’s namesake, Alan Shepard, became the first American astronaut in 1961 when he flew over the 80 kilometer threshold.

The rocket and crew capsule separate at the top of the trajectory and return to Earth. The rocket lands back on the pad from whence it departed. The crew capsule descends under parachutes to a soft touchdown nearby. Blue Origin released a video of its entire coverage of the mission (liftoff is at 1:43:12).

NS-16 astronaut Oliver Daemen, at 18 the youngest person to fly to space, being greeted by his father after landing. Scrrengrab, July 20, 2021.

The crew’s flight duration was just 10 minutes and 10 seconds.

They were met by family and friends at the landing site. Daeman’s father was there to give him a hug. Asked what that reunion was like, Daemen said “everyone on the ground was so emotional” but “we were just having fun.”

Bezos cheered it as the “best day ever.”

At the daily White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki called it a “moment of American exceptionalism” since the United States “is the first country to have private companies taking private passengers to space.” She noted that NASA’s charter directs the agency to make the “fullest commercial use of space” and “is excited to see these achievements.”

NASA routinely uses suborbital rockets for science and technology experiments and has launched on New Shepard in the past, though not today.

For all the good news about the flight, Bezos is a controversial figure. News feeds were full of critical comments about him personally and the entire idea of billionaires flying themselves into space. Another billionaire, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, was first to make the trip on a vehicle he paid to build, SpaceShipTwo, nine days ago.

Branson and Bezos claim their goal is to open spaceflight to the masses so everyone can see Earth from above and how fragile it is and be inspired to take better care of it. But Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic — and their orbital counterparts at SpaceX and Axiom Space — are businesses and at the moment getting a seat is reserved for wealthy individuals or people they select. Mark Bezos and Funk got seats because Jeff Bezos picked them. Oliver Daemen flew because he has a rich dad.

Rep. Richard Blumenauer (D-OR) intends to introduce legislation to tax commercial space flights carrying human passengers if they are not engaged in scientific research.

There is a bigger picture, though. New Shepard will be the second stage of Blue Origin’s orbital New Glenn rocket that will be powered by Blue Origin’s methane-based rocket engines. Those engines also will be used by the United Launch Alliance for its new Vulcan rocket.  Blue Origin is hoping to get a contract from NASA to build a lunar Human Landing System and Bezos has a very long term vision to move heavy industry off of Earth and into cislunar space so Earth can be preserved for habitation and light industry. The business is not just flying rich people on 10-minute joyrides across the Kármán line.

Indeed, rather than giving in to the negativity that seems to define this era, what happened today could simply be enjoyed as a moment of happiness that Wally Funk finally earned an astronaut pin, Oliver Daemen got the best gift ever from his dad, and Jeff Bezos took his little brother on an adventure.

Not to mention that Bezos used the occasion to bestow two $100 million “Courage and Civility” awards to Van Jones and Chef José Andrés to use for their own or other non-profits.

Andrés said that while the award alone cannot feed the world, “this is the start of a new chapter for us, to allow us to think beyond the next hurricane to the bigger challenges we face.”

Bezos also contributed $200 million to the Smithsonian Institution last week, and the $28 million from the auction is being distributed among 19 space-related charities and non-profits and Bezos’s own Club for the Future Foundation to get kids interested in STEM education. That’s all good news.

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