Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” pilots who fought to open NASA’s early astronaut program to women, will ride with Jeff Bezos on his space company’s first crewed mission out of Earth’s atmosphere later this month, the billionaire announced on Instagram Thursday.
Funk brings the crew size for New Shepard’s debut flight carrying humans on July 20th to four, including Bezos, his brother Mark, and a yet-to-be-named passenger who paid $28 million for their trip to space in an auction that closed last month. Bezos’ presence on the first flight is seen as a show of confidence in New Shepard’s safety.
Funk’s inclusion as an “honored guest” is the latest symbolic move to inaugurate Blue Origin’s space tourism program — the July 20th date is the anniversary of the first US Moon landing, and the New Shepard capsule is named after Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut.
“In 1961, Wally Funk was at the top of her class as part of the ‘Mercury 13’ Woman in Space Program,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Despite completing their training, the program was cancelled, and none of the thirteen flew.”
“It’s time. Welcome to the crew, Wally. We’re excited to have you fly with us on July 20th as our honored guest.”
Funk, 82, was an iconic aviator in the mid-20th century and one of 13 women to graduate from the privately funded Women in Space Program, where she underwent rigorous astronaut training but was ultimately never able to go to space. When NASA opened its astronaut applications up to women in 1976, Funk applied three times but was turned down each time.
Funk’s space enthusiasm hasn’t died. She’s also booked a front row seat on the suborbital SpaceShipTwo plane from Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space tourism firm that competes with Bezos’ Blue Origin, according to the magazine Texas Monthly. Like New Shepard, SpaceShipTwo flies to the edge of space roughly 62 miles high, the internationally recognized marker for space.