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Who counts as an astronaut? Not Jeff Bezos, say new US rules

People who take commercial flights to space generally won’t qualify for astronaut wings

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Space tourism is ramping up with the recent flights to space of billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos aboard their respective companies’ spacecrafts, but not every person who goes to space is officially considered an astronaut. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has tightened its rules for how it awards astronaut wings to those riding on private space flights, making it harder to become an official commercial astronaut.

What are FAA astronaut wings?
In the US, there are three agencies that designate people as astronauts: the US military, NASA, and the FAA. The former two only give wings to their own employees, so the only way to be officially recognized as an astronaut after a flight on a commercial spacecraft is to be awarded wings from the FAA. They don’t come with any particular privileges beyond bragging rights.

What are the rules to be certified as a commercial astronaut now?
For the FAA to award wings, an astronaut must be employed by the company performing the launch – so tourists that have bought tickets are out. They must also go through training to be certified by the FAA as an astronaut and fly higher than 80 kilometres. And they must have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety,” according to the new order providing the guidelines.

What counts as a contribution?
Whether a crew member has made a contribution to space flight safety is up to the discretion of FAA officials. Over the last decade, the agency has awarded astronaut wings only to the pilots of spacecraft – the one exception was Beth Moses, a Virgin Galactic executive who flew aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo craft in 2019. The main criteria seems to be that the astronauts must be designated as crew members performing some task aboard their flights, not simply passengers.

So will the passengers on the recent Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights be considered astronauts?
That’s a bit complicated. Virgin Galactic designated Richard Branson and the other three passengers on his 11 July flight as crew members testing the spacecraft, but it’s not clear whether they “contributed to human space flight safety” in general.

Things are more clear-cut in the case of the 20 July Blue Origin flight: the spacecraft was entirely controlled from the ground, not by Jeff Bezos or any of the other three passengers, so all they had to do was enjoy the ride. That means that they would not qualify for astronaut wings under the FAA’s new rules.

Are there any exceptions? 
The agency is allowed to give honorary wings to “individuals who demonstrated extraordinary contribution or beneficial service to the commercial human space flight industry” but who did not satisfy the other eligibility requirements. So Wally Funk, a passenger aboard the flight who trained to be an astronaut in the 1960s but did not get to go to space back then, may still get her astronaut wings.

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