Trailblazing Female Pilot to Join Jeff Bezos on Spaceflight


The New York Times 02 July, 2021 - 05:30am 21 views

When is Bezos going into space?

The news came just hours after Bezos' Blue Origin said Bezos would be accompanied into space on July 20 by a female aerospace pioneer who's waited 60 years to rocket away. Bezos chose July 20 as his West Texas launch date — the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Associated PressRichard Branson announces trip to space, ahead of Jeff Bezos

Wally Funk, who underwent training in the 1960s, will become the oldest person to ever fly to space.

Mr Bezos has invited Ms Funk as an "honoured guest" and shared video on Instagram of him telling her the news.

She will join the Amazon founder, his brother Mark and a mystery person who paid $28m (£20m) at auction for a seat.

The company plans to launch its passengers more than 100km (62 miles) above the Earth's surface, allowing them to experience microgravity.

The capsule will then return to Earth using parachutes on a trip expected to last about 10 minutes.

In a two-minute clip posted online, Mr Bezos is seen telling Ms Funk that she has been chosen for the trip.

"I didn't think I'd ever get to go up," she says in the video.

Born in New Mexico in 1939, Wally Funk says she has had a life-long love of aviation.

She has logged 19,600 flight hours across her career and taught some 3,000 people to fly.

The 82-year-old has already made history a number of times - serving as the first female air safety investigator for the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) and the first woman to be an inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US.

Funk volunteered in 1961 for the Women in Space programme where she underwent rigorous physical and mental testing in the hope of becoming an astronaut.

But the scheme was later abruptly cancelled and she and the other women - collectively known as the Mercury 13 - never made it to space with Nasa.

Ms Funk previously spent $200,000 (£145,000) in 2010 on a ticket for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic programme - which recently got FAA approval to start taking paying customers on its own rocket missions.

"I can't tell people watching how fabulous I feel to have been picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip" Ms Funk says in the video, adding she expects to "love every second" of the journey.

Jeff Bezos is one of the world's richest people.

He created Blue Origin in 2000 and announced last month that he and his brother would embark on the flight - described it as something he had wanted to do "all my life".

The US president meets families of people who died or are missing after a building collapsed last week.

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Read full article at The New York Times

Who Is Wally Funk, Jeff Bezos's Fellow Space Passenger?

The Atlantic 02 July, 2021 - 08:12pm

In the beginning, the small group of Americans who aspired to become astronauts had to pass an isolation test. Spaceflight wasn’t going to be easy, and the country wanted people with tough minds.

For his test, John Glenn sat at a desk in a dark, soundproofed room. He found some paper in the darkness, pulled a pencil out of his pocket, and spent the test writing some poems in silence. He walked out three hours later.

For her test, Wally Funk floated inside a tank of water in a dark, soundproofed room. She couldn’t see, hear, or feel anything. She emerged 10 hours and 35 minutes later, not because she was done, but because the doctor administering the test decided it might be time to pull her out.

Glenn went on to become the first American to orbit Earth and one of the most recognizable names in American spaceflight. He died in 2016, the last member of NASA’s first class of astronauts. Funk never flew to space, and most people had probably never heard of her until today, when Jeff Bezos announced that Funk would join him on his journey to space, aboard his own rocket, built by his company Blue Origin. Three weeks from now, Funk will blast off into the sky, experience a few glorious minutes of weightlessness, and come back down. At 82, she is poised to become the oldest person to fly to space—a record currently held by Glenn, who went to space for the last time when he was 77 years old.

Glenn and Funk took their isolation tests during the exhilarating beginnings of the American space program, but their experiences didn’t overlap. Glenn was part of the Mercury program, NASA’s first attempt to send men—and, at the time, only men—to space, while Funk participated in a privately funded project meant to see how women held up to the pressures of spaceflight. Randy Lovelace, the doctor in charge of the effort, had worked with NASA’s male astronauts, and he suspected that women might fare just as well, or even better, than men in the tiny, cramped spaceships that NASA had planned; women are, on average, lighter and smaller, and would require less food and oxygen, scientists suggested at the time. Lovelace recruited female pilots under 40, matching the age requirements of NASA’s real astronaut corps. In the early 1960s, Funk and the others underwent the same intense barrage of physical and psychological tests that Lovelace had developed for the NASA men. The screenings were meant to push participants to exhaustion; as no one knew yet the toll spaceflight would have on a human body, sending astronauts at peak fitness seemed like an important hedge for success.

Funk was 22 years old when she joined Lovelace’s program, the youngest of the group. She had been fascinated by planes since she was a child, and got her pilot’s license as a teenager. In 1960, she became the first female flight instructor at her training school in Oklahoma. Funk thought her early start would help her as NASA pushed forward with its space effort. “Since … the ships for it have not been designed yet, some of the other women astronauts will have passed the age limit,” she said in an interview with the San Pedro News-Pilot in 1962. Thirteen of 19 women, including Funk, ended up passing the examinations, compared with 18 of 32 men in NASA’s program.

But the women in Lovelace’s program never had a chance to fully prove their mettle. The doctor had wanted to run more tests using military facilities, and although Lovelace was affiliated with NASA, military officials were unenthusiastic about the idea and wouldn’t allow it. In 1962, a congressional hearing considered the question of adding women to its astronaut corps, and Glenn, fresh off his historic journey, dismissed the possibility: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” That fact stuck for more than two decades, until Sally Ride launched into orbit in 1983.

By then, Funk was in her 40s and still eager to fly to space. She applied to NASA’s astronaut corps four times, but the agency wanted its astronauts to have engineering degrees, and Funk didn’t have one. Funk continued flying beneath Earth’s atmosphere, going on to become a safety inspector at the Federal Aviation Administration, the first woman in such a role.

Today, NASA has different requirements for its astronauts; prospective candidates can have degrees in other science fields, not just engineering. But the agency is no longer space’s gatekeeper, either. The new “right stuff,” that special set of qualities that once made American spacefarers seem almost mythical, is money and luck. People can pay for a ticket, or win a competition, or, in Funk’s case, receive an invitation from the richest person in the world. Age, physical fitness, and mental acuity matter less; would-be astronauts have to pass some medical screenings and meet height restrictions. (Astronaut capsules are more spacious now, but they’re still a tight fit.) Earlier this year, when asked about the requirements for passengers who want to fly on his SpaceX capsule, Elon Musk said, “If you can go on a roller-coaster ride, like an intense roller-coaster ride, you should be fine.”

The decision to include Funk on Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed flight is a clever public-relations move, and in line with the image Bezos is building for himself, as a bit of a hopeless romantic when it comes to the story of spaceflight. One of Blue Origin’s rockets is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space, and another after Glenn. Bezos’s debut flight will roughly follow Shepard’s suborbital journey in 1961, and take place on July 20, the anniversary of the first moon landing in 1969. With these acts of homage, Bezos intends to add his own name to the narrative of humanity’s ventures off-Earth—and if he can beat a few other space billionaires while he’s at it, even better.

The rich hold the keys to space now, and their whims are shaping what it means to be an astronaut, and who is in that club. Funk is closer to her dream of becoming an astronaut today, in this new era of billionaire-led space tourism, than she was in 1961. The preparation will certainly be less grueling too; Blue Origin passengers will receive just a few days of training before the big day, presumably aren’t required to take the barium enemas that the women in Lovelace’s program “had all the time,” as Funk recounted to her biographer, the science journalist Sue Nelson, in Wally Funk’s Race for Space.

Taking Funk on this ride may be a great PR stunt, but at its core, it’s a real gift, to a real person. In a video Bezos shared on Instagram today, he asks Funk about how it would feel to finally become an astronaut, and she throws her arms around him and says, “I would say, ‘Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me!’” Bezos is a billionaire, made rich by a company that has come to dominate American life—a man who some people would prefer not return to Earth after his trip beyond the atmosphere. But Funk is, by all accounts, a badass—as Nelson put it, “the sort of woman who, if history had been kinder, might have been the first woman on the moon.” The rules of space travel in what we often describe as NASA’s golden age wouldn’t allow it, but the rules of space travel today, with its private rockets and eccentric billionaires, do.

Seasoned US pilot Wally Funk to fulfill space dream 60 years on 02 July, 2021 - 08:12pm

The flight will not just make her the oldest person ever to travel in space, but also a walking, breathing symbol of the rewards of audacity and perseverance.

"I like to do things that nobody's ever done," she said in a video posted on Instagram by Bezos.

Funk grew up in the western United States in Taos, New Mexico. As a child she was passionate about aviation and took her first flying lesson at age nine. In high school, she was barred from taking mechanics, a subject reserved for boys.

Such rules did not prevent her from obtaining a pilot's license and graduating from Oklahoma State University, known for its aviation program. By now she has logged 19,600 hours of flight time.

At the very beginning of the 1960s she joined a privately-funded, innovative flight program called Mercury 13—which put women through the same training and tests as the male astronauts undergoing the official NASA program.

A doctor who helped develop the training tests, William Randolph Lovelace, decided to allow women to try them out in his private clinic to see whether they too were able to pass.

The 13 women became the Mercury 13—with Funk being the youngest among them.

"They were testing us to our extremes," she recalled in a 1999 interview with NASA.

Water was injected into her ears to induce dizziness. She had to ingest rubber tubes.

But "it was going to get me one step closer to space, and this is where I wanted to go."

During one trial, Funk was locked in a dark tank with perfect sound insulation, filled with water kept at her exact body temperature so that all feeling and sensation was lost.

"I was on my back, floating in water, without being able to use my five senses (...) I just had to stay there lying down", she says.

She broke the record by staying inside for 10 hours and 35 minutes.

In the end, "they told me that I had done the job better and faster than any of the men," she recalled during Thursday's video statement.

But the program was scrapped after being rejected by NASA and the first American women did not go into space until 1983.

"It was kind of interesting, the fact that we could have done it, and they just wouldn't let us. A dog did it. A monkey did it. A man did it. Women can do it too," she said in 1999.

Wally Funk applied to become an astronaut at NASA on four occasions. She was rejected every time.

One reason given was that she did not have an engineering degree and had not completed the flight program on a military fighter jet—an impossible ask of a woman at the time.

But Funk has never been short on ambition: she became the first female inspector of the American aviation agency, the FAA, then the first woman investigator for the American agency in charge of aeronautical disasters (NTSB).

She handled over 450 accidents by her retirement in 1984 and taught 3,000 people to fly.

And she never gave up her dream of leaving gravity behind and flying among the stars.

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