82-year-old Mercury 13 member to go on first New Shepard flight
Blue Origin has announced that 82-year-old space pioneer Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk will fill the fourth seat on New Shepard's first passenger flight on July 20, 2021. A participant in the 1960s Woman in Space program, she will be the oldest person to ever fly into space.
The selection of Funk completes the passenger list for the first New Shepard flight. The other three include Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, and the yet-unnamed winner of the auction for the first paying passenger seat, which fetched a staggering US$28 million.
Aviator, athlete, and champion marksman, Wally Funk was one of the "Mercury 13" – a name coined by Hollywood producer James Cross in 1995 to describe the 13 women who passed the tests that were used to qualify the Mercury Seven astronauts selected in 1959.
Because NASA was overwhelmed with applicants when it first began recruiting astronauts, President Eisenhower decided to restrict the pool of candidates to military test pilots with engineering degrees. This not only meant that the candidates had comparable qualifications, but they were also all experienced pilots, accustomed to military discipline, and had top secret clearance.
Unfortunately, this also disqualified all potential female candidates because, at that time, there were no women military test pilots. Curious to see how women would react to spaceflight, William Randolph Lovelace II, who was a former Flight Surgeon and, later, chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, with the help of General Don Flickinger, in 1960 invited 25 women to undergo the same battery of physical and psychological tests that Lovelace had developed for NASA.
Though it had the support of NASA, the Woman in Space program was privately funded and went ahead with little publicity. Unlike the Mercury Seven astronauts, the women were tested individually and never met as a group. By the end of the program, 13 women passed the Phase I tests.
Funk was the youngest of the 13 and scored the highest marks, and was already an accomplished aviator. Born in 1939, she was the first female flight instructor at a US military base at the age of 20. She went on to become the first woman to complete the US FAA's General Aviation Operations Inspector Academy course and, in 1973, she became the first US woman to become a specialist in the FAA Systems Worthiness Analysis Program and went on to become the female Air Safety Investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Though she hasn't flown in space yet, Funk tried several times to make it into orbit. She applied three times to NASA's Space Shuttle program, but she lacked an engineering degree and test pilot qualifications. In the end, she was permanently disqualified as a Shuttle pilot because of her age. Now, she'll finally realize her goal.
Source: Blue Origin