This retired professor has a ticket to follow 82-year-old Wally Funk into space. How the billionaire space race is redefining ‘the astronaut’


Wally Funk beamed from ear to ear as she took the stage in a blue jumpsuit and raised her arms skyward in front of a cheering crowd after becoming the oldest person to ever leave the planet.

Earlier in the day, she had taken off for a suborbital flight aboard Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard rocket in a moment that had lasted for sixty years. The 82-year-old had completed a program in the early 1960s for female pilots who competed to be astronauts, but never had the chance to go to space.

As she fulfilled her own dream, she also became a silver-haired icon for the earthlings below who realized that for the first time, dreams of traveling among the stars might not be limited by age. or athletic ability.

Among them? Judy Anderson, 69, a retired science professor at the University of Manitoba and aspiring future space traveler, who has the 623 ticket to take off on a Virgin Galactic flight in the future. She loved every part of Funk‘s story, she said.

“Women have been fighting for equal opportunity for well over 60 years and finally someone is giving them the gift – an opportunity that was denied to her all this time,” she said.

The past week saw the launches of two budding space companies. While the advent of space tourism has been controversial due to sky-high costs and lack of regulation, advocates argue that it is already opening up space for demographics not normally seen in the halls of the world. The NASA.

As Anderson watched Funk’s flight on Tuesday, she marveled at the success of the pilot, but also that of one of her fellow travelers – Oliver Daemen, the 18-year-old Dutchman who simultaneously became the younger to go into space.

To put that in context, the broad-smirking blonde teenager was born around the same time Funk became eligible for old age benefits.

While Funk went at Bezos’ invitation, Daemen’s price of admission is unknown. At the eleventh hour he was replacing an as yet unidentified winner of a $ 28 million charity auction who was unable to surrender.

Anderson called having the youngest and oldest people ever in space on the same flight “a wonderful idea.” During their Funk flight, Daemon and the Bezos brothers floated in zero gravity and threw ping-pong balls at each other.

“Imagine what it’s like if Grandma comes up, comes back and talks to her granddaughter or grandson and they ask questions? ” she said.

Kids will grow up thinking they can go to space without being a fighter pilot or a super athlete, she adds.

Barriers remain, however. Anderson admits the cost is out of reach for most people – she put $ 20,000 as a down payment on her $ 200,000 Virgin Galactic ticket. As a retired professor, she doesn’t have the deep pockets of a billionaire, but says she will basically live on mac and cheese from now on.

She hopes the price of other hopeful astronauts will drop over time.

Anderson is set to travel with Virgin Galactic, a company founded by Richard Branson and Bezos’ company’s main rival, Blue Origin, in the new billionaire space race.

Watching the flight, Anderson also thought about what she had learned in physics in high school about the speed and differences between Bezos’ flight and that of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson days earlier.

She thought about the feeling she had on a swing when her stomach landed on her feet before climbing back up.

“Don’t you like being on the swing?” When you swing hard and climb to the top and you’re sort of semi-weightless just for a split second, then you come back down and you’re quickly,” she said.

“It’s so wonderful, just to feel the world.”

It’s unclear how long it will be before Anderson can leave, but if they do one flight per week, she estimates it could take around two years.

Anderson hopes she can one day inspire others to follow their space ambitions.

“I’m happy to share – I hope it helps someone think they could make their dreams come true,” she said. “Schoolchildren and people from all walks of life, just look up. Keep looking up, keep dreaming, keep learning about yourself, about the world.

At Tuesday’s press conference after his return, Bezos held up the glasses Amelia Earhart wore during her pioneering and record-breaking days as a pilot in the first half of the 20th century, which he had brought for the trip. .

“If Amelia was there she would be very, very proud of Wally,” he said before kissing Funk.

Then it was Funk’s turn to tell the audience what it looked like, “Woo! she said, getting up from her chair next to Bezos.

“I waited a long time to finally get there and did a lot of astronaut training around the world – Russia, America – and I could always beat the guys over what they were doing because I was always stronger and I have always done everything on my own, ”she said.

“I liked it.”

With files from the Associated Press

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