Wally Funk, female aviation pioneer, breaks John Glenn’s spaceflight record on Blue Origin mission

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(AP/WJW) — An 82-year-old female aviation pioneer denied astronaut wings decades ago because of her gender will become the oldest person to ever hurtle off the planet Tuesday when Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket blasts off from West Texas.

It will be Jeff Bezos’ company’s first flight with people on board on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. There will be four people on board, including Bezos.

At age 82, Funk will become the oldest person to launch into space. She’ll beat the late John Glenn, who set a record at age 77 when flying aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1998.

Funk is among the so-called Mercury 13 women who went through astronaut training in the 1960s, but never made it to space — or even NASA’s astronaut corps — because they were female. Back then, all of the NASA astronauts were military test pilots and male.

“No one has waited longer,” Bezos said via Instagram when her participation was announced. “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, a pilot and former flight instructor, was the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

“Finally!” Funk exclaimed when offered a seat alongside Bezos. 

Also on board will be Bezos’ 50-year-old brother Mark, an investor and volunteer firefighter. Joining them will be Oliver Daemen, a last-minute fill-in for the winner of a $28 million charity auction who had a scheduling conflict. 

British entrepreneur Richard Branson poses with Wally Funk, a test pilot, flight instructor, and a Mercury 13 astronaut – a training program for women that was cancelled before any could go into space – and who is now one of some 300 would-be space tourists who have paid some or all of the $250,000 fare up front, at a gathering in a Virgin Galactic hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. Potential space tourists gathered in California’s Mojave Desert to see the latest progress from Branson’s space tourism enterprise. The company has been testing SpaceShipTwo designed to take paying passengers into space. Commercial flights will begin once testing is complete. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Daemen, 18, will become the youngest person in space. His financier father bid on the capsule seat in June, but dropped out when the price soared. Blue Origin came calling just over a week ago, after the unidentified auction winner switched to a later flight. The teenage space fanatic, who starts college this fall, is Blue Origin’s first paying customer; no word on what his ticket cost.

Bezos, also the founder of Amazon, is aiming for an altitude of roughly 66 miles (106 kilometers), more than 10 miles (16 kilometers) higher than Richard Branson’s ride on July 11.

The capsule is fully automated, so there’s no need for trained staff on the quick up-and-down flight, expected to last just 10 minutes. Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket plane needs two pilots to operate.

Bezos’ dream-come-true trip follows 15 successful test flights to space by New Shepard rockets since 2015, all of them unoccupied. If successful, Blue Origin plans two more passenger flights by year’s end.

Blue Origin is expected to open ticket sales soon after Bezos flies and has already lined up some of the other auction bidders. The company hasn’t disclosed the cost of a ride. The fourth seat on the upcoming flight was auctioned off for $28 million.

Nineteen space advocacy and education groups are getting $1 million each as a result, with the rest to be used by Blue Origin’s Club for the Future for its own education effort. While the diminutive New Shepard is meant to launch people on brief flights to the edge of space, the mega New Glenn will be capable of hauling cargo and eventually crew into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida, possibly beginning late next year.

Blue Origin also has its eyes on the moon. Its proposed lunar lander, Blue Moon, lost to SpaceX’s Starship in NASA’s recent commercial competition to develop the technology for getting the next astronauts onto the moon. Blue Origin is challenging the contract award, as is the other competitor.

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