Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk may physically be back on Earth, but mentally she’s still on clould nine. The 82-year-old iconic space aviator was onboard Jeff Bezos‘ 6-foot-tall New Shepard rocket from Blue Origin that jetted off into space (and back!) on Tuesday, July 20. Wally became the oldest person to ever travel into space thanks to the adventure, and was joined by Jeff, 57, his brother Mark Bezos, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen. The foursome lifted off from the West Texas launch site at 9 a.m. EST and shot straight up to the edge of space, before making a perfectly safe return landing.
Wally had a lifelong dream to go to space as the first-ever female Federal Aviation Agency inspector and a member of the iconic all-female Mercury 13. After landing, Wally and her three male crew members all received pins for their achievement during a press conference. “Best pin I’ve ever had in my life. And I’ve had a lot of them,” Wally said, receiving a huge applause from the crowd. Wally also shared her experience on the flight to the crowd. “I had such a good instructor. He took us through everything we were gonna do. When I went up this morning, the noise wasn’t quite as bad,” she said. “I thought i was going to see the world. We weren’t up high enough. I felt great. I felt like we were just laying down and I was going into space.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get it up there and I’ve done a lot of astronaut training and I can always beat the guys on what they were doing because I was always stronger and I’ve always done everything on my own,” the longtime astronaut continued. “I loved it, and I love being here with all of you. The four of us, we had a great time. It was wonderful. I wanna go again — fast! When I got off the ship they gave me the tail-end of one of the balloons and I’m gonna cherish that forever.”
— ABC News (@ABC) July 20, 2021
The mission, named NS-16, marked the first time that Blue Origin sent humans to space. Jeff, however, is not the first billionaire to make such a monumental journey: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson flew to space and back in his company’s rocket on July 11. During the flight, the New Shepard rocket and capsule experienced what’s called “Max Q,” an aerospace term that refers to the point during flight at which a vehicle experiences its maximum dynamic pressure, according to CNN. After the ship grazed outer space, Wally and the rest of the crew descended back to Earth. They deployed parachutes and the capsule safely touched down.
Both Wally and Oliver’s inclusions on the flight made history. While Wally became the oldest person to go to space, Oliver is now the youngest at 18 years old. The teen, who is the son of Joes Daemen, CEO of the Dutch private equity firm Somerset Capital Partners, also became Blue Origin’s first paying customer, as he took the place of an anonymous bidder that won a seat on the flight for $28 million during an auction. The initial winner had “scheduling conflicts.”
The day before takeoff, Jeff said in a CNN interview that it would not be a risky mission, citing New Shepard’s self-governing crew capsule. “We know the vehicle is safe,” the billionaire said. “If the vehicle is not safe for me, it’s not safe for anyone.” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith added that the company wouldn’t have had use for test pilots. “We didn’t see any value, quite honestly, from doing things step-wise in that approach,” he explained. “Seeing that this is an autonomous vehicle, there’s really nothing for a crew member to go do.”