After a six-decade wait to launch off the Earth, new space traveler Wally Funk is ecstatic.
The 82-year-old aviation pioneer (and now the oldest person ever to fly in space) launched on a suborbital flight Tuesday (July 20) aboard New Shepard, a private rocket built by Blue Origin and financed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, who was also on the flight. The trip, Funk said, was “incredible.”
Funk – who attempted unsuccessfully to join NASA’s astronaut corps four times and was part of the Mercury 13 group of female aviators who took astronaut tests — finally flew on New Shepard’s debut crewed spaceflight for free at the invitation of billionaire founder Jeff Bezos. Also joining her was Bezos’ venture capitalist brother Mark, and paying passenger and physics student Oliver Daemen.
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“I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get up there,” Funk said during a livestreamed postflight briefing Tuesday from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One near Van Horn, Texas.
“I’ve done a lot of astronaut training through the world — Russia, America,” she continued. “I could always beat the guys on what they were doing, because I was always stronger. I’ve always done everything on my own.”
Bezos has said repeatedly in interviews that Funk always outshone the three men on her crewmates, who are between ages 18 and 57. Funk’s enthusiasm was apparent, as she bounded first up the stairs at the launch tower, waving at the camera. Upon emerging from the capsule after landing, the octogenarian — who has 19,600 pilot hours under her belt — extended both arms wide, grinning.
Waiting at the landing site was a flight student of Funk’s, Mary — whose last name was not disclosed. Mary was one of at least 3,000 people that the octogenarian taught over the decades, Funk said. “I don’t know if they’re going to get to see this or not,” Funk said of her former students, “but I felt so charged. I was just a normal person going up into space.”
Funk and the rest of her crewmates were rookie astronauts, although Funk’s thousands of hours of instructional and pilot experience would likely have seen her face some in-flight “anomalies” that could have helped in case of emergency.
While the New Shepard flight was nominal, it appears Funk’s decades of time in the cockpit made an impression on at least one of her crewmates.
“Wally was never nervous,” Jeff Bezos said, but the former Amazon CEO joked that Funk became impatient when a six-minute launch hold happened on the pad for so-far undisclosed reasons. “Wally was like, ‘Are we going to go, or not? What the hell; we’re burning daylight. Let’s go.'”
Funk attempted to join the NASA program during an era when the agency drew all its astronauts from the American military corps, which itself excluded women until the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1978 that NASA selected women astronauts. Among the new female recruits, Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983 – 22 years after the first American man, Al Shepard, after whom the New Shepard system is named. Funk was 44 years old in 1983, compared to Ride’s 32.
The long wait gave a historical perk to Funk, however, as she became the oldest person to reach space Tuesday during the New Shepard flight. She surpassed the 1998 record set by then 77-year-old Mercury astronaut John Glenn on space shuttle flight STS-95.
Launch and landing tend to be the parts of a space mission in which astronauts experience multiple “G-forces”, or acceleration a few times that of Earth’s normal gravity. But Funk said she barely felt a thing.
“It was so easy, it was just incredible [and] I didn’t feel that,” Funk said of the landing, during which the capsule descended to Earth under three parachutes. She added that the flight was an experience she will always cherish, thanks to the view and her crewmates.
“I want to go again,” she said as Blue Origin’s audience cheered. “Fast.”