Who’s an astronaut? FAA weighs in on a murky issue for suborbital space travelers

Jeff Bezos will get a custom-designed Blue Origin astronaut pin from former NASA astronaut Jeff Ashby, who now serves as Blue Origin’s chief of mission assurance. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Hundreds of deep-pocketed vacationers are prone to take suborbital space journeys as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space enterprise, in addition to the Virgin Galactic enterprise based by fellow billionaire Richard Branson, ramp up their industrial operations.

But will all of them get astronaut wings?

The reply seems to be no, in the event you go by the Federal Aviation Administration’s newly issued guidelines for its commercial space astronaut wings program. Those tips counsel that astronaut wings can go solely to crew members on a licensed spacecraft who contribute to flight security and rise above the 50-mile altitude mark.

Which leaves a massive query: Where precisely will the road be drawn?

For instance, will Bezos and Branson get the FAA’s wings, despite the fact that neither of them touched the controls of their rocket-powered autos? What about all the opposite of us who fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket aircraft, or Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship?

Giving wings to the pilots of suborbital spacecraft seems to be a no-brainer: That made the wings-or-no-wings determination simple for the flights of SpaceShipOne in 2004, in addition to the first flight of SpaceShipTwo in 2018.

The class was broadened past pilots in 2019, when the FAA awarded wings to Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief coach. Moses rode in a passenger seat on the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity to judge the shopper expertise.

Branson and different Virgin Galactic representatives (together with Moses) crammed comparable roles on this month’s check flight in New Mexico.

The scenario is considerably completely different for Bezos and the others who flew on New Shepard this week: Because the spacecraft flies autonomously, there aren’t any pilots. And solely Bezos appears to face a likelihood of becoming the FAA’s definition of crew, which is restricted to workers or contractors who’re related to a firm concerned in the spacecraft’s launch or re-entry.

The FAA gives an out, nevertheless: Wings could possibly be awarded on an honorary foundation to “individuals whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition,” even when they don’t meet all of the common {qualifications}. The FAA’s affiliate administrator for industrial space transportation has the ultimate say.

That means it’s finally as much as Associate Administrator Wayne Monteith to determine which billionaires, and which of their fellow fliers, advantage being awarded the FAA’s astronaut wings and the status that goes with them.

The FAA’s wing-shaped pins aren’t the one badges of recognition for space travelers: Last yr, the Association of Space Explorers created its own pin for customers as well as crew members who fly above the 50-mile mark.

In addition, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have created their very own astronaut pins, which shall be awarded to everybody who flies on their suborbital spacecraft. Virgin Galactic’s pin is impressed by the form of flying sycamore seeds, whereas Blue Origin’s is a stylized A with a feather emblem and a tiny blue sapphire to characterize Earth.

Branson and Bezos have been among the many first to obtain their very own firms’ pins from the palms of retired astronauts, throughout ceremonies that instantly adopted their flights. That’s a technique to make sure that industrial spacefliers may have one thing to place on their lapels or in their memento containers, it doesn’t matter what the FAA says.

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