EletiofeJeff Bezos Goes to Space. Day Two: Blastoff

Jeff Bezos Goes to Space. Day Two: Blastoff


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Only a few months ago, Blue Origin, the space company founded and funded by Jeff Bezos, didn’t figure it would be making history on July 20, 2021. But that’s what happened.

It was the day Mary Wallace (Wally) Funk went to space.

Oh, yes, yes, Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was in the capsule, too, along with 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, his first paying space customer. And Jeff’s brother, who he called “the funniest man in space,” a compliment contested by any number of experienced space reporters in West Texas today for the launch. (Their evidence is the 2 Funny Astronauts podcast hosted by Mike Massimino and Garrett Reisman.)

But while sending the world’s richest human to space is a striking gambit, and the advent of commercial space tourism is a milestone, Wally Funk is sui generis. In a story that is being told and retold in a thousand media outlets this week, in 1960, Funk was part of the original Mercury 13, a group trained to become the first female astronauts. But NASA would not sign on to the program, and for the past 60 years, Funk, an expert pilot and a diligent investigator of aviation safety, became obsessed with occupying the spaceship seat denied her. In 2010, she signed up for a $200,000 place aboard Richard Branson’s VSS Unity, expecting a Virgin Galactic suborbital flight sometime that decade. Frustration built as her date never got closer. Then, out of the blue, Bezos offered her a space on today’s New Shepard launch.

WIRED’s Steven Levy is reporting daily from Van Horn, Texas, where Jeff Bezos was among the first passengers aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket system. You can read the dispatch from Day 1 here.

As the world learned today, she was more than ready. Her fellow crew members repeatedly claimed that the octogenarian was the most prepared and most fit of the bunch of them, and certainly today her energy was clear to all. Even as the crew was strapped in the capsule awaiting liftoff—a time when one would forgive a bit of anxiety—she was impatiently straining toward the Kármán line. “I felt so charged,” she said later.

“We had a six-minute hold, and she was wondering what was taking so long,” said Bezos. “What the hell! We’re burning daylight!”

Sure enough, when New Shepard took flight and climbed 65 miles to space, she was out of her seat and performing crazy maneuvers. “Ohhh! I love it! I love it!” she cried, as she and her crewmates cavorted in what looked like a mutant performance of the Pilobolus dance troupe.

During the post-flight press conference, she owned the room from the moment she walked on stage. (Considering that the room was “the barn,” a facility on the Blue Origin base big enough to hold the New Shepard rocket behind her, this was saying something.) Instead of strolling to her seat like the others, she moved to the edge of her stage and spread her arms, a victory move as bold as Megan Rapinoe’s. Every time she spoke, she stood up, held the mic to her face and boomed her comment. The crowd, which included reporters, friends and family of the crew, and the two daughters of Alan Shepard, ate it up.

Jeff Bezos was smart enough to delightedly roll with it. While most people assumed this was going to be almost exclusively his day, he was more than happy to share the spotlight. True, some of the Blue Origin people had been a bit on edge not knowing what the relentlessly frank and gleefully unpredictable Funk might say. No worries. She was Bezos’ best promoter since Alexa. “I’ve been waiting a long time to go into space. And I want to thank you, sweetheart—because you made it possible for me,” she said, hugging Bezos and evoking even more applause from the crowd. And though Bezos might never admit it, recruiting her to his flight was a brilliant wipe-that-grin-off-your-face dunk on Richard Branson. Branson might have slithered into space first. But Bezos had Wally!

Her presence was especially welcome because it filled in the gap opened by Bezos’ admitted shortcomings in describing how amazing his flight was. In the first of a number of television interviews (print journalists were not favored by the man whose company started by selling actual books), Bloomberg TV’s Emily Chang asked him what space was like for him. He said he didn’t have the verbal skills to do it justice. “Maybe we need to send a poet up,” he suggested, “Someone who would be better at describing it.”

Today, Funk’s energy spoke emphatically for space. Her only complaint was that she wanted more. ”I want to go again, fast!” she said.

Funk’s boffo performance capped a perfect day for Bezos. His company had finally accomplished its long-overdue goal of human flight. He, personally, had lived his lifelong dream of space travel, with his best friend and brother alongside him. He hadn’t died! And while he had the ear of space lovers, he announced a new philanthropic effort through which he’d give $100 million to civic leaders who reach solutions with civility. The winners, Van Jones and José Andrés, will divvy out the dough to their own favorite causes.

The only hitch, it seemed, came when Jeff Ashby, a former NASA shuttle pilot now working for Blue Origin, bestowed sapphire-rimmed wings to the crew, signifying their newly won astronaut status. He had trouble pinning the medals on their jumpsuits. But after a few awkward seconds, it was mission accomplished.

Blue Origin is promising two more flights this year, and Bezos is talking about ramping up production so many more commercial flyers can get their wings. He won’t be on the next flight, and neither will Wally Funk. How can he top today?

May I suggest inviting Amanda Gorman? Sending the star of the Biden inauguration to the stars would not only provide us with a memorable passenger, it would resolve Bezos’ need to have poetry describe the awesomeness of suborbital space.

Don’t miss future subscriber-only editions of Steven’s Plaintext column. Subscribe to WIRED (50% off for Plaintext readers) today.

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