Who Can Be Called an Astronaut? The F.A.A. Will No Longer Say.
Jeff Bezos is officially an astronaut. Really — just ask the federal government.
The Federal Aviation Administration said on Friday that it was ending a program that awarded small gold pins called “Commercial Space Astronaut Wings” to certain people who flew to space on private spacecraft.
But before the program officially retires in January, all who applied for the gold wings after flying to space this year will still receive them, the agency said. That means Mr. Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon who rode a rocket with his space company, Blue Origin, to the edge of space in July, will be considered a commercial astronaut.
So will Richard Branson, the founder of the space tourism firm Virgin Galactic who flew his own company’s rocket plane to space in the same month. William Shatner, the Star Trek star who flew with Blue Origin to the edge of space in October, will also receive astronaut wings to go with his Starfleet paraphernalia. Twelve other people were also added to the federal agency’s list of wing recipients on Friday.
The changes will help the F.A.A. avoid the potentially awkward position of proclaiming that some space tourists are only passengers, not astronauts.
The Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program was created by Patti Grace Smith, the first chief of the F.A.A.’s commercial space office, to promote the private development of human spaceflight — a mandate from a 1984 law that aimed to accelerate innovation of space vehicles. The program began handing out pins to qualified individuals in 2004, when Mike Melvill, a test pilot who flew the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne plane, became its first recipient.
To qualify for the commercial astronaut wings under the original guidelines, a person had to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles, the marker of space recognized by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, and be a member of the spacecraft’s “flight crew.”
Recognizing a surge in spaceflight activity, the F.A.A. narrowed its criteria in July, a day after Mr. Bezos launched to space. The updated version, outlined in a five-page order, required crew members to have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety,” a tweak that aligned the program “more directly to the F.A.A.’s role to protect public safety during commercial space operations,” the agency said at the time. It also gave the head of the agency’s commercial space flight office the discretion to grant wings to people who “demonstrated extraordinary contribution or beneficial service to the commercial human space flight industry.”
The advent of space tourism, and especially the F.A.A.’s new rules, sparked debate over who can be called an astronaut.
NASA picks its astronauts through an exhaustive selection process, and astronaut candidates endure years of safety and technical training before their first flights to space. By contrast, passengers and paying tourists aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket train for a few days, before launching to the edge of space and back in a fully autonomous mission that lasts roughly 10 minutes. Virgin Galactic, Mr. Branson’s space tourism firm, offers a similar experience on a space plane that launches midair off a carrier plane.
Companies could nominate the private passengers on their rockets to be awarded commercial astronaut wings by the F.A.A. Blue Origin had nominated the passengers aboard all of its New Shepard flights by sending applications to the agency, but the company hadn’t received a response for months. It was unclear whether Mr. Bezos would meet the criteria for demonstrating “activities during flight that were essential to public safety.”
But the F.A.A. settled the uncertainty on Friday by tossing out its criteria from July and awarding the wings to everyone who flew to space on private spacecraft this year. The new criteria was outlined in the agency’s statement: “Any individual who is on an F.A.A.-licensed or permitted launch and reaches 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth.”
SpaceX’s first four private passengers, who spent three days in orbit aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft in September, were also named as wing recipients.
Any private spaceflight passenger who flies to space before the year’s end will also be eligible. That will include Saturday’s scheduled flight of six passengers by Blue Origin, including Michael Strahan, the TV host and former Giants defensive end.
Although no one will receive the little gold pins after 2021, those who fly above 50 miles on an F.A.A.-licensed rocket will be honored in the agency’s online database.
But future space tourists should not despair a lack of post-flight flair. Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX have each presented paying and guest passengers with custom-designed wings.