Blue Origin flight means several firsts
They cheered, they laughed; these astronauts made history with their space flight.
This morning, Wally Funk, a woman who dreamed of going into outer space and proved way back in 1961 she had the right stuff, reached for the stars and made it to the edge of space during the historic Blue Origin flight.
The New Shepard spacecraft rose in an apparently flawless flight on top of a rocket from Van Horn, Texas, a little past 6 this morning Pacific time. Ms. Funk and the other astronauts were heard cheering and laughing as they saw space and got to float in a weightless environment, their dreams come true.
Ms. Funk, 82, who was part of the female “Mercury 13” astronaut program during NASA’s infancy and did well in tests, went go up into space today with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos and 18-year-old Oliver Daemon of The Netherlands.
Today, Ms. Funk became the oldest astronaut in history; Mr. Daemon, the youngest.
The flight came a little over a week after Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson beat Jeff Bezos with one not-so-small step in making space history as the first space company billionaire to soar into space. Today Blue Origin crew took off in their New Shepard spacecraft.
The rocket didn’t soar at warp speed, but it was still very fast — more than three times the speed of sound.
They went up to the edge of space, made some history in microgravity and came back down, not unlike what Alan Shepard did during his suborbital flight when he became the first American astronaut in space on May 5, 1961.
Less than a half-hour after today’s launch, the astronauts were back on the ground, giving hugs and smiling. Moments earlier, they had cheered and laughed in a capsule far more comfortable than the one Mr. Shepard used for his historic flight.
The one-man Mercury capsules were a tight fit and had a small window, which they wouldn’t have had if the astronauts hadn’t insisted. By contrast, the New Shepard reportedly has the largest windows of any space capsule in history and can comfortably sit six astronauts.
And unlike the old Mercury missions, Blue Origin’s rocket booster is reusable. (So is the capsule.) The booster is designed to make a gradual landing, and it did just that this morning.
To think, all of this flying up into space and back began with a chimpanzee. The first hominid in space was a chimpanzee named Ham, who represented America when he flew on the Mercury-Redstone mission on Jan. 31, 1961. You can see his capsule at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, along with one of the two-men Gemini capsules.
The U.S. lost the race to put the first human in space. That honor went to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who completed one orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961.
But around this time, Ms. Funk of today’s Blue Origin crew was reaching for the stars — or at least the Earth’s orbit.
The Las Vegas native and professional aviator — in fact, she was the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base (the Army’s Fort Sill) — became part of the “Mercury 13” when she volunteered in February 1961 for the Women in Space program. At age 21, she was the youngest of the 13 in the program run by William Randolph Lovelace.
Like the other women, Ms. Funk was put through rigorous training and tests such as being placed in a sensory deprivation tank. She did well in the tank, staying there for a whopping 10 hours and 35 minutes. Her score was the third best in the program, which was canceled before the women underwent their last test.
NASA didn’t accept Ms. Funk into its astronaut program, but she kept making history anyway, as the first female Federal Aviation Administration flight inspector and the first female National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator. She also logged more than 19,000 flight hours.
Today, Ms. Funk broke the record of being the oldest astronaut, which John Glenn set at age 77 when he rode on the space shuttle in 1998. (The late Sen. Glenn, of course, is forever known as the first American to complete an orbit of the Earth. To be accurate, he went around the planet three times.)
Today’s astronauts showed they have the right stuff (to borrow “The Right Stuff” author Tom Wolfe’s term) — and the stuff of science fiction. Novelists such as Robert Heinlein accurately predicted the rise of private, commercial space flights, and Mr. Branson, Mr. Bezos and Elon Musk are working to launch space tourism.
Mr. Musk’s SpaceX will be part of that history when it launches the first fully private-crewed mission in September. And Mr. Musk already has bought a ticket to go up on one of Mr. Branson’s Virgin Galactic flights.
That’s a lot of history in the making, and who knows? Maybe warp speed isn’t that far behind.