Revised FAA rules put Branson and Bezos' astronaut wings in doubt
Are Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos astronauts? Though both billionaires flew to at least the edge of space, they may not qualify for official astronaut wings. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released revised rules for its Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program last week, which essentially restrict the application of the word astronaut to the flight crew of a spacecraft, not the passengers.
NASA adopted the word astronaut for its space travelers in the 1950s, while its space race rival the Soviet Union used cosmonaut, followed more recently by the Chinese taikonaut.
But whichever word is used, it seemed, at first, that it was perfectly simple as to what an astronaut was. An astronaut was someone who got into a spacecraft and flew into space. There were disputes as to where the atmosphere officially ended and space began, but once in space, you were an astronaut.
As the first Mercury capsules went into orbit, it was clear who the astronauts were. But it wasn't long before the moniker became bone of contention.
On July 19, 1963, Joseph Walker, in an X-15 spaceplane, reached an altitude of 65.87 miles (106.01 km) and did it again a month later. By both the US and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) Sporting Code for astronautics definitions of the beginning of space, that made him technically not only an astronaut, but the first person to fly into space twice.
In 2005, NASA officially recognized eight X-15 pilots as astronauts because they flew above an altitude of 50 miles (80 km), which is the US space definition, rather than the FAI definition of the beginning of space of 62 miles (100 km).
The X-15 pilots were an easy call because the eight men were all military test pilots who met the selection criteria for NASA space program astronauts. The matter seemed settled until the 1980s when NASA's Space Shuttles started flying regular missions. These giant space transports not only had trained and qualified test pilots at the controls, but also non-pilots termed "mission specialists" and even a complete outsider as part of the Teachers in Space program, which was cancelled after the 1986 Challenger disaster. Did they qualify as astronauts?
NASA, the US military, and ESA finally settled on a rule. An astronaut was someone who was a crew member aboard NASA spacecraft, a member of the NASA astronaut corps, or the ESA astronaut corps. This became official in the US Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984.
In 2020, an amendment added "spaceflight participant," which covered those who travel to the International Space Station, but not on a US spacecraft; and a "commercial astronaut," who flies into space as crew on a privately owned and operated spacecraft.
Now, the new FAA rules state that a commercial astronaut must carry out "[d]emonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety" to qualify for commercial astronaut wings.
Essentially, what this means is that the FAA is leaning towards a legal definition of astronaut as the actual flight crew of a spacecraft involved in its operation and safety, as opposed to passengers or secondary crew, whatever their function.
To use an analogy, if astronaut wings were awarded for being aboard a 747 in the 1970s, they would go to the pilot, copilot, flight engineer, and navigator, as well as the flight attendants, whose first duty is to maintain safety in the main cabin. The passengers, the bartender, and the paid piano player in the first class lounge would not qualify.
So where does this put the people who flew on the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights? Two people certainly qualify as astronauts: the pilot and copilot at the controls of VSS Unity. The rest of the people aboard the Virgin Galactic spaceplane and on the New Shepard crew capsule, which had no flight crew, are another matter.
Under the FAA rules, which apply because both missions lifted off from the United States, though Sir Richard and the other three passengers on VSS Unity were officially listed as mission specialists, they had nothing to do with flying the craft or maintaining its safety. The same is true of the passengers on the New Shepard flight.
Whether they get wings is unclear. Even if they don't get proper astronaut wings, the passengers could get honorary awards. The new rules include nomination for such awards to "individuals whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition," which can be given even if all the criteria aren't met.
Why is any of this important? Aside from making sure the term astronaut doesn't become meaningless in the face of a growing wave of space tourists, it will become increasing relevant as humanity moves from an era of pure space exploration to one with a large commercial space sector that sees more people going into space for work and recreation.
Among other things, this means setting legal precedents for new qualification titles. It may be that one day astronaut won't be synonymous with space traveler, but will refer to a specific job title like Airline Pilot or Yachtmaster, both of which require recognized training and testing before an official certificate is issued.
If things advance far enough, maybe one day the FAA will need a revision to include amateur astronauts for people who pilot their own space Skylarks for a day jaunt into the ionosphere.
Source: FAA (PDF)