Female aviation pioneer Wally Funk goes wide-eyed
Female aviation pioneer Wally Funk goes wide-eyed when discussing spaceflight with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (Instagram Video / Jeff Bezos)

When Jeff Bezos blasted off to the edge of space on Tuesday, it was a huge achievement for Blue Origin. But it wasn't necessarily a good look.

Before it even began, the flight drew criticism because of its passengers.

Bezos, who says he has dreamed of going to space since he was five, enthusiastically claimed the first seat. He brought along his brother, Mark Bezos, a former marketing executive who invested in Amazon early and has been involved in the Bezos Family Foundation for two decades. Dutch 18-year-old Oliver Daemen joined them. Daemen's father, the CEO of real estate private equity firm Somerset Capital Partners, had bought the seat, according to CNBC.

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2002, and he says its mission is to "build a road to space." That means making launch systems cheap enough to fly anybody who can afford a plane ticket. Eventually, he wants to build human settlements throughout the solar system.

The passengers on Blue Origin's first human flight - a pair of billionaire brothers and a hedge-fund manager's teen son - didn't quite reflect that message of accessibility.

"Anyone would want a break from this planet, but the billionaires are virtually the only ones who are able to leave," Shannon Stirone wrote in The Atlantic before Bezos' flight, referring to the ongoing pandemic and extreme weather caused by climate change. "Leaving Earth right now isn't just bad optics; it's almost a scene out of a twisted B-list thriller."

The fourth passenger, though, was the flight's saving grace. Wally Funk is 82 years old, and she's spent almost her entire life looking to the skies. In 1961, Funk joined an all-woman space mission dubbed "Mercury 13." She was a leading astronaut trainee, but the program was ultimately scrapped - seemingly for sexist reasons.

Funk dedicated the rest of her life to aviation. In a Blue Origin video, she said she has taught over 3,000 people to fly. But she never made it to space until Tuesday.

"It was great. I loved it," Funk, who was absolutely beaming, said after the flight. "I can hardly wait to go again."

While Funk was endearing, Bezos' comments after the flight only made him seem more out of touch.

Blue Origin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bezos said Amazon workers and customers 'paid for all of this'

Amazon Workers Strike outside the company's Staten Island warehouse, May 1, 2020.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Upon returning to Earth, Bezos announced a new $100 million award to recognise leaders who show "courage and civility."

"We live in a world where sometimes, instead of disagreeing with someone's ideas, we question their character or their motives," Bezos said while announcing the award in a post-flight press conference (during which the company only took three questions from reporters). "What we should always be doing is questioning ideas, not the person."

But he had already made another statement that would draw criticism of his own character and motives: "I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this," he said of the spaceflight.

The comment rekindled social-media anger over reports that some Amazon workers encounter gruelling and potentially dangerous conditions, and that the company has aggressively fought unionisation efforts.

"I feel like he just said that because he had a guilty conscience, he knows he's wrong for making money off treating workers like slaves," an employee at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse said.

"Me and my coworkers were joking that he should just go to Jupiter and live his best life there," the employee added.

Anand Giridharadas, an editor-at-large for Time and author of the book "Winners Take All," also latched onto Bezos' words.

"After his phallic, plutocratic, four-minute mini-dip into space, Jeff Bezos came down to Earth and said the quiet part out loud, the thing so many plutes are so reluctant to say, because if they were to say it, it would unravel the pretensions of plutocracy itself: that the money he went up to space with really belonged to, among others, the workers of Amazon," Giridharadas said.

Other Bezos critics - like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - pointed out that American taxpayers have also subsidised Amazon and Blue Origin.

Funk was frank about the spaceflight

A screengrab from video recorded inside the New Shepard capsule shows (left to right) Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, and Wally Funk in microgravity.
Blue Origin

Funk did not mince words about her 10-minute spaceflight.

"I loved every minute of it, I just wish it had been longer," she said in the press conference.

She added that it was dark, she couldn't see Earth on the way up, and that "there was not quite enough room" during the three minutes she was able to unbuckle and roam. She said she "could do a lot more rolls and twists and so forth" on parabolic plane flights that simulate the microgravity of space.

Funk is signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic's space plane, which makes a similar trip that offers roughly five minutes in microgravity.

Bezos told reporters that "hell yes" he wants to launch again too. Since Blue Origin's rocket is intended for paying customers, he'll probably fly alongside millionaires once again.

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