In the beginning, the small group of Americans who aspired to become astronauts had to pass an isolation test. Spaceflight wasn’t going to be easy, and the country wanted people with tough minds.
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For his test, John Glenn sat at a desk in a dark, soundproofed room. He found some paper in the darkness, pulled a pencil out of his pocket, and spent the test writing some poems in silence. He walked out three hours later.
For her test, Wally Funk floated inside a tank of water in a dark, soundproofed room. She couldn’t see, hear, or feel anything. She emerged 10 hours and 35 minutes later, not because she was done, but because the doctor administering the test decided it might be time to pull her out.
Glenn went on to become the first American to orbit Earth and one of the most recognizable names in American spaceflight. He died in 2016, the last member of NASA’s first class of astronauts. Funk never flew to space, and most people had probably never heard of her until today, when Jeff Bezos announced that Funk would join him on his journey to space, aboard his own rocket, built by his company Blue Origin. Three weeks from now, Funk will blast off into the sky, experience a few glorious minutes of weightlessness, and come back down. At 82, she is poised to become the oldest person to fly to space—a record currently held by Glenn, who went to space for the last time when he was 77 years old.
Glenn and Funk took their isolation tests during the exhilarating beginnings of the American space program, but their experiences didn’t overlap. Glenn was part of the Mercury program, NASA’s first attempt to send men—and, at the time, only men—to space, while Funk participated in a privately funded project meant to see how women held up to the pressures of spaceflight. Randy Lovelace, the doctor in charge of the effort, had worked with NASA’s male astronauts, and he suspected that women might fare just as well, or even better, than men in the tiny, cramped spaceships that NASA had planned; women are, on average, lighter and smaller, and would require less food and oxygen, scientists suggested at the time. Lovelace recruited female pilots under 40, matching the age requirements of NASA’s real astronaut corps. In the early 1960s, Funk and the others underwent the same intense barrage of physical and psychological tests that Lovelace had developed for the NASA men. The screenings were meant to push participants to exhaustion; as no one knew yet the toll spaceflight would have on a human body, sending astronauts at peak fitness seemed like an important hedge for success.
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Funk was 22 years old when she joined Lovelace’s program, the youngest of the group. She had been fascinated by planes since she was a child, and got her pilot’s license as a teenager. In 1960, she became the first female flight instructor at her training school in Oklahoma. Funk thought her early start would help her as NASA pushed forward with its space effort. “Since … the ships for it have not been designed yet, some of the other women astronauts will have passed the age limit,” she said in an interview with the San Pedro News-Pilot in 1962. Thirteen of 19 women, including Funk, ended up passing the examinations, compared with 18 of 32 men in NASA’s program.
But the women in Lovelace’s program never had a chance to fully prove their mettle. The doctor had wanted to run more tests using military facilities, and although Lovelace was affiliated with NASA, military officials were unenthusiastic about the idea and wouldn’t allow it. In 1962, a congressional hearing considered the question of adding women to its astronaut corps, and Glenn, fresh off his historic journey, dismissed the possibility: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” That fact stuck for more than two decades, until Sally Ride launched into orbit in 1983.
By then, Funk was in her 40s and still eager to fly to space. She applied to NASA’s astronaut corps four times, but the agency wanted its astronauts to have engineering degrees, and Funk didn’t have one. Funk continued flying beneath Earth’s atmosphere, going on to become a safety inspector at the Federal Aviation Administration, the first woman in such a role.
Today, NASA has different requirements for its astronauts; prospective candidates can have degrees in other science fields, not just engineering. But the agency is no longer space’s gatekeeper, either. The new “right stuff,” that special set of qualities that once made American spacefarers seem almost mythical, is money and luck. People can pay for a ticket, or win a competition, or, in Funk’s case, receive an invitation from the richest person in the world. Age, physical fitness, and mental acuity matter less; would-be astronauts have to pass some medical screenings and meet height restrictions. (Astronaut capsules are more spacious now, but they’re still a tight fit.) Earlier this year, when asked about the requirements for passengers who want to fly on his SpaceX capsule, Elon Musk said, “If you can go on a roller-coaster ride, like an intense roller-coaster ride, you should be fine.”
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The decision to include Funk on Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed flight is a clever public-relations move, and in line with the image Bezos is building for himself, as a bit of a hopeless romantic when it comes to the story of spaceflight. One of Blue Origin’s rockets is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space, and another after Glenn. Bezos’s debut flight will roughly follow Shepard’s suborbital journey in 1961, and take place on July 20, the anniversary of the first moon landing in 1969. With these acts of homage, Bezos intends to add his own name to the narrative of humanity’s ventures off-Earth—and if he can beat a few other space billionaires while he’s at it, even better.
The rich hold the keys to space now, and their whims are shaping what it means to be an astronaut, and who is in that club. Funk is closer to her dream of becoming an astronaut today, in this new era of billionaire-led space tourism, than she was in 1961. The preparation will certainly be less grueling too; Blue Origin passengers will receive just a few days of training before the big day, and presumably aren’t required to take the barium enemas that the women in Lovelace’s program “had all the time,” as Funk recounted to her biographer, the science journalist Sue Nelson, in Wally Funk’s Race for Space.
Taking Funk on this ride may be a great PR stunt, but at its core, it’s a real gift, to a real person. In a video Bezos shared on Instagram today, he asks Funk about how it would feel to finally become an astronaut, and she throws her arms around him and says, “I would say, ‘Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me!’” Bezos is a billionaire, made rich by a company that has come to dominate American life—a man who some people would prefer not return to Earth after his trip beyond the atmosphere. But Funk is, by all accounts, a badass—as Nelson put it, “the sort of woman who, if history had been kinder, might have been the first woman on the moon.” The rules of space travel in what we often describe as NASA’s golden age wouldn’t allow it, but the rules of space travel today, with its private rockets and eccentric billionaires, do.