Oklahomans gathered at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum early Tuesday to watch Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturer founded by Jeff Bezos, launch a human-occupied rocket to the brink of space. But TASM Executive Director Tonya Blansett was watching a role model and fellow Oklahoma State University alumna Wally Funk make history.
The rocket, coined New Shepard, carried four passengers: Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, the 18-year-old son of a Dutch millionaire who bid for the seat in an online auction, and American aviator Wally Funk.
At 82 years old, Funk is the oldest person to have ventured to space — and the newest Oklahoma State Cowgirl to have done so.
Drawn to OSU’s “Flying Aggies” program, Funk earned her bachelor of science degree at OSU. She quickly rose through the ranks and was elected a “Flying Aggies” officer before pursuing an illustrious aviation career.
Blansett knows more about Funk’s career than just about anybody. Rattling off Funk’s job positions, setbacks and achievements over the past 60 years, Blansett was ecstatic to finally see Funk take flight into space.
“Being an Oklahoma State graduate myself, I’m really proud,” Blansett said. “She really was a trailblazer for women in aviation.”
Famously, Funk was an original member of Mercury 13, a team of female astronauts who successfully performed the same tests as their male counterparts but were denied their chance at going to space due to gender.
By the time women were allowed in NASA’s space program, all 13 members had aged out of eligibility.
Despite having 19,600 hours of flight under her belt, Funk never fulfilled her childhood dream of going into space — until Tuesday.
“For (Funk) to get to do this after being left out of those opportunities just because of her gender really shows how far we’ve come in equality,” Blansett said. “She’s a role model for everyone.”
Gathered in the Tulsa Air and Space Museum’s planetarium Tuesday morning, families and aficionados alike leaned back to watch New Shepard’s journey on the 360 degree screen. The children joined in the lift-off countdown as it reached T minus 10 seconds. Nearly 11 minutes later, Funk and the rest of the crew landed back in West Texas.
Those in the planetarium included the Roberts family, who had awakened before 6 a.m. and driven an hour and a half to watch the launch at the museum.
“Since my kids were little, we’ve been bringing them up here to the space museum,” Renee Roberts said, gesturing to her two sons, one of whom is now in college. The family’s shared self-identification as “space geeks” may have evoked light-hearted chuckles, but it has served as a lasting family bond. With her son leaving for college soon, TASM served as their family’s “last hoorah.”
New Shepard’s launch fulfilled life-long dreams and brought families together, but it also contributed to a new era in aerospace engineering and exploration — the space race among billionaires.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, created Blue Origin in 2000. Twenty-one years later, Forbes lists Bezos as the richest man in the world with a net worth of $177 billion. He has paid his way to space.
Bezos’ expedition comes just days after billionaire Sir Richard Branson became the first person to go to space on a self-funded ship. Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, is being marketed as a space-tourism company.
Similarly, Blue Origin has two more civilian launches scheduled for 2021 alone. This new era of space exploration is offering earth dwellers tickets to space, if only they have the funds to pay.
“Anytime you have a new program or a new idea and there’s research and development involved, it’s very expensive,” Blansett said.
“Privatization allows people who can afford it to do that expensive research and development,” she said, adding that “a lot of these discoveries and technologies are going to benefit everyone.”
Related video: Jeff Bezos launches into space aboard his own rocket