Early this morning, from their Launch Site One facility in West Texas, Blue Origin made history as it conducted the first crewed flight of its New Shepard launch vehicle. The crew consisted of four commercial astronauts: Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, aerospace pioneer Wally Funk, and 18-year old student from The Netherlands Oliver Daemon.
The flight was a major milestone for the company, for commercial aerospace, and for civilian spaceflight. It was the culmination of years of development, which entered a new phase when Bezos announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Amazon to take a more hands-on role. The flight was also historic because it involved the oldest (Wally Funk, 82-years old) and youngest (Oliver Daemon, 18-years old) astronauts to ever take flight.
The flight began at 08:12 AM CST (06:12 AM PST; 09:12 AM EST) and saw the New Shepard lift off from the company’s facility in Van Horn, Texas. By 08:15 AM, mission control reported the successful separation of the RSS First Step capsule from the first stage booster, which returned to the launch site shortly thereafter. A minute later, the capsule reached its apogee of 100 km (62 mi) – the Kármán Line – where the crew experienced four minutes of weightlessness.
Screenshot from Blue Origin live feed of their first human flight, showing Wally Funk emerging from the capsule.
By 08:22 AM, the capsule made a soft landing about a minute after the chutes deployed and slowed the capsule’s descent to a smooth 26 km/h (16 mph). By 09:45 AM, the post-flight press conference (which was also broadcast live via Blue Origin’s website) began and featured the crew sharing what the experience was like, getting their commercial astronaut pins, and showing some of the mementos they took with them to space.
While every member of the crew had inspiring words to share, it was Wally Funk’s infectious, energetic nature that really roused the crowd. Funk was a very special guest on the flight, having been a member of the Mercury 13 – aka. the First Lady Astronauts Trainees (FLATs) program – in 1960/61. Like her fellow trainees, Funk went through the same medical tests and training as their male counterparts who went on to become the Mercury Seven.
Funk was at the top of her class and outperformed the male astronauts in every category, but never got to go to space due to the nature of astronaut selection (which excluded women based on their lack of military training). When asked what the experience was like, she stood up with a hoot and conveyed the significance of it all with gusto:
“I’ve been waiting a long time to finally get it up there and I’ve done a lot of astronaut training through the world – Russia, America – and I could always speak the guys on what they were doing. Because I was going stronger and I’ve always done everything on my own, and… I didn’t do dolls! I did outside stuff. And I flew airplanes, and I have 19,000-some hours [flying time].
“I loved it, and I love being here with all of you, and your family. The four of us, we had a great time. It was wonderful. I want to go again, fast! And then when I got off the ship they gave me the tail end of one of the balloons, and I’m gonna cherish that forever.”
Flight instructor Wally Funk posing in front of a USAF fighter. Credit: NASA
Bezos was also sure to introduce a number of very special guests that had attended the launch, which included his own mother and Laura and Julie Shepard. Their father, famed astronaut Alan Shepard (who passed away in his home in California in 1998) was the first