Can Richard Branson really call himself an astronaut after Sunday’s Virgin Galactic flight?

On May 5, 1961, Commander Alan Shepard steered his Mercury Freedom 7 spacecraft 116 miles above the surface of the planet to become the first American to enter Earth orbit. Last Sunday, Sir Richard Branson was escorted aboard the SpaceShipTwo Unity by Virgin Galactic to an altitude of 80 kilometers. Somehow these men are both now considered astronauts.

The discrepancy lies in the fact that since the beginning of the space age the exoplanetary powers of the world have never really got around to formalizing where the earth’s atmosphere ends and where “space” – as it is – begins. Even within the US federal bureaucracy, different agencies use different standards. What NASA Mission Control considers the edge of space is actually 42 miles further away than where NOAA and the US Air Force mark the atmospheric limit. So next time you’re racing through the mesosphere, keep an eye on your altimeter if you’re looking to earn the coveted astronaut badge.

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