The success of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard rocket launch on Tuesday highlighted that some limits are meant to be crossed. With astronaut Wally Funk, 82, now the oldest person to travel in space on board, this message was especially brilliant for some residents of Franklin County.
Martha Ackmann, resident of Leverett, author of “The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight”, relished the 10 minute flight in space performed by Funk, Bezos, her brother Mark Bezos and 18 years old. Olivier Daemen. Ackmann joined his friend Catherine “Cady” Coleman, a Shelburne Falls resident and former NASA astronaut who spent 4,330 hours in space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and the International Space Station, to tune in to the post-launch press conference. The two celebrated the success of the mission as a step towards what Ackmann hopes will be a “fairer world”.
“I never thought she would arrive in space,” Ackmann said of Funk, whom she has known for 23 years. “One opportunity after another failed.”
Funk is one of two surviving members of the Mercury 13 group of astronaut trainees who were ultimately not selected for space travel after passing standard NASA training and tests in 1961. His rise to 60 years over late not only marked the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but made Funk the oldest person to ever travel to space.
Coleman said many people don’t know the story to know the extent of gender discrimination.
“Back then, people were really wondering if women could do these things,” Coleman said. “The more we look back, the more we can move forward. ”
“It’s just an amazing day,” Ackmann said. “I shed a tear or two. … I know what this means for the Mercury 13. ”
Ackmann said that while Tuesday’s flight “seems like the dawn of a new era,” part of it seems part of a story that comes full circle. In 1999, Ackmann was with Funk to attend the launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia STS-93 where Coleman joined Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a space mission. Ackmann remembers that Funk was particularly touched by this milestone, uttering words of encouragement that might well have been addressed to Funk herself before the launch of New Shepard.
“Wally said, ‘Come on, Eileen’. Go there for all of us.
Some refute the concept of billionaire businessmen getting involved in space travel. Coleman, however, believes Bezos’ motivations behind his space company Blue Origin are more than just financial. She said Bezos went the extra mile to innovate and involve deserving people in his missions.
“People want to tell the easy story,” Coleman said of those who despise Bezos’ care. “It’s not about going into space. It’s about having the vision and the resources to go into space and lead the way.
Coleman and Ackmann each expressed the belief that “breaking open space flights” by making them more frequent and accessible would result in increasing diversity as more and more boarding spaceships. Ackmann said Blue Origin’s focus on diversifying spaceflight and commercial space travel is drawing attention where it’s needed.
“I hope this makes people wonder who comes in, who is excluded and the price we are paying for discrimination,” Ackmann said.
Coleman said she hopes that greater accessibility will allow more people to see the big picture of the world, which can then help them form a figurative image of it.
“Getting up in space and seeing the view and getting that perspective is really important,” Coleman said. “They’re going to head into space and look down and realize how much work we have to do on Earth.”
Contact Julian Mendoza at 413-772-0261, ext. 261 or [email protected]