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‘Just laying down… going into space’

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the billionaire entrepreneur, thanked a long list of people for making his brief sojourn into the uppermost reaches of the atmosphere possible, particularly including Amazon employees and customers in that list, “because you guys paid for all this,” Bezos said in a postflight press conference that lasted longer than the 10-minute flight that made him officially an astronaut.

Unlike the flight, which went off without any apparent hitch or glitch, Bezos had a surprise up his sleeve for the postflight news conference, announcing a pair of $100 million donations, one to each of two recipients of an award he created to honor “Courage and Civility,” money that World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés and Dream Corps founder Van Jones will use as they see fit.

Funk, who at age 82 became history’s oldest astronaut decades after she proved she had the right stuff by passing the same physiological and psychological tests used to select the first NASA astronauts, credited her Blue Origin instructor with preparing her well for what would happen when the rocket motor ignited and began producing 110,000 pounds of thrust.

“The noise wasn’t quite as bad,” Funk said during the news conference carried live on television. “I felt great. I felt like I was just laying down, I was just laying down, and I was going into space.”

The New Shepard lifted off shortly after 8 a.m. Central time July 20 from Texas, its first flight with human passengers aboard. Image courtesy of Blue Origin via YouTube.

After the rocket motor switched off and the capsule separated, Bezos; his younger brother, Mark; Funk; and 18-year-old pilot and college student Oliver Daemen, unbuckled their belts and floated around the cramped cabin in a slow-motion version of what children look like playing in a bounce house. Their adventure was brief, just a few minutes available before gravity reclaimed them for a descent that reached 5 Gs, the spacecraft rapidly decelerating as it returned to the thicker atmosphere. Funk was the first to get strapped back in, partly, she noted later, because there wasn’t enough room for everybody to float around in a flurry of limbs and smiles.

“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Funk said after the flight. “I’ve done a lot of astronaut training… I was always stronger and I’ve always done everything on my own, and I didn’t do dolls… I did outside stuff, and I … flew airplanes.”

More than 19,000 hours of flying, she noted, in a career spent teaching more than 3,000 people to fly.

“We can confirm that Wally, once again, in training outperformed the men,” Bezos said at the press conference.

Funk was ready to jump back in the capsule for another ride: “I loved every minute of it, I just wish it had been longer,” she said. “I can hardly wait to go again.”

Bezos said suborbital tourism will begin after a few more test flights of the fully automated system, but that will just be a stepping stone to higher flights, emphasizing that Blue Origin will “ferociously” pursue missions far beyond the atmosphere. He compared the suborbital tourism industry he is helping to launch to the barnstormers of aviation’s early days, offering short flights that helped spawn demand for commercial air travel. “Big things start small, and this is how it starts,” he said. 

Bezos hinted that Funk may not have seen her last of space: “Next stop is the moon, Wally,” he said.

The Blue Origin rocket that will be used as the second stage of a higher flying rocket in the future, landed on target a few minutes ahead of the capsule it had carried. Image courtesy of Blue Origin via YouTube.

After a show-and-tell session that included Bezos trying on the goggles Amelia Earhart wore during a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, among the artifacts carried aboard that also included a fragment of the Wright Flyer on loan from the Explorers Club, and a medallion commemorating the first balloon flight in history, Bezos announced his newest philanthropic venture, the “Courage and Civility Awards” presented to Jones and Andrés. Bezos dwelled on the “civility” aspect, saying that he wants to encourage people to question ideas, not the motivations of the people who have them. “We need unifiers, and not vilifiers.”

Jones, visibly emotional, said: “Sometimes dreams come true. Sometimes dreams come true… anything’s possible if you believe… They dream big, they love big, and they bet big, and you bet on me, and I appreciate it.”

Andrés, a restaurateur turned philanthropic star in his own right who created an emergency response food program that has served countless meals at the scenes of natural disasters and other calamities, said he was “so honored” and “really grateful” to Bezos: “World Central Kitchen was born from the simple idea that food has the power to create a better world,” Andrés said. “This is the start of a new chapter for us.”

The New Shepherd capsule touched down softly under parachutes, with a short blast of rocket power to soften the landing. Image courtesy of Blue Origin via YouTube.

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