Who’s an astronaut? FAA wades into a murky issue for spacefliers

Jeff Bezos receives a bespoke Blue Origin astronaut lapel pin from former NASA astronaut Jeff Ashby, who now serves as Blue Origin mission control director. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Hundreds of deep pocket tourists are likely to embark on suborbital space travel as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space company and Virgin Galactic, founded by billionaire Richard Branson, ramp up commercial operations.

But will they all get astronaut wings?

The answer seems to be no, given the Federal Aviation Administration’s newly issued guidelines for their commercial astronaut wing program. These guidelines suggest that astronaut wings can only be given to crew members of a licensed spacecraft who contribute to flight safety and rise above the 50 mile altitude mark.

One big question remains: where exactly is the line drawn?

For example, will Bezos and Branson get the wings of the FAA even though neither of them touched the controls of their missile-propelled vehicles? What about all of the other people flying the Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane or Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship?

For me, an astronaut is someone who is involved in space exploration and science as part of the public service. Are they paid? Yes. Do they have to be flown?

According to NASA, after three years of training as an astronaut, you are an astronaut.

But not a “flown astronaut”.

– Mary Robinette Kowal @ ???? (@MaryRobinette) July 20, 2021

This was consistent from the start. It wasn’t crossing the threshold of space that gave you that title, it was the years of training and purpose that made it work.

So you will hear me speak of these people as spacemen.

Except for Wally Funk, who’s a goddamn astronaut.

– Mary Robinette Kowal @ ???? (@MaryRobinette) July 20, 2021

Giving wings to the pilots of suborbital spaceships seems to be child’s play: That made the decision for wings or no wings for the flights of SpaceShipOne in 2004 and the first flight of SpaceShipTwo in 2018 easy.

The category expanded beyond pilots in 2019 when the FAA gave wings to Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s head coach. Moses rode in a passenger seat of the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity to evaluate the customer experience.

Branson and other Virgin Galactic representatives (including Moses) took on similar roles on this month’s test flight in New Mexico.

With Bezos and the others who flew on New Shepard this week, the situation is a little different: Because the spaceship flies autonomously, there are no pilots. And only Bezos appears to have a chance of meeting the FAA’s definition of crew, which is limited to employees or contractors associated with a company involved in the spacecraft launch or reentry.

However, the FAA gives a way out: Wings could be awarded on an honorary basis to “people whose contribution to commercial manned space travel deserves special recognition”, even if they do not meet all of the regular qualifications. The FAA Assistant Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation has the final say.

That means it is ultimately up to Associate Administrator Wayne Monteith to decide which billionaires and which of their fellow flyers deserve to receive the FAA astronaut wings and the prestige that goes with it.

Wally Funk gets her astronaut pin pic.twitter.com/piE4MHKXwi

– Alan Boyle (@ b0yle) July 20, 2021

The FAA’s wing-shaped pins aren’t the only identifying marks for space travelers: Last year, the Association of Space Explorers developed its own pin for customers and crew who fly over the 50-mile mark.

In addition, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have created their own astronaut pins that are given out to anyone who flies their suborbital spaceship. Virgin Galactic’s pin is inspired by the shape of flying sycamore seeds, while Blue Origin’s is a stylized A with a feather emblem and a tiny blue sapphire that represents the earth.

Branson and Bezos were among the first to receive their own company pins from the hands of retired astronauts during the ceremonies that immediately followed their flights. This is a way to ensure commercial space fliers have something to put on their lapels or in their keepsake boxes, no matter what the FAA says.

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