Say you’re Jeff Bezos.
You’re the richest person in the world. You’ve spent billions of dollars starting up a rocket company that has just launched you and three others high enough that everyone agrees you reached outer space, even if just for a few minutes.
Are you now an astronaut?
The answer appears to be no, at least in the eyes of the Federal Aviation Administration, which last week revised its definitions on whom it considers to be an astronaut.
But for Richard Branson, the billionaire who went to space a week earlier on a rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic, a company he founded, the answer might be yes.
The advent of the age of space tourism brings along a question of semantics: Is the word “astronaut” something that describes where someone has been — outer space — or is it a job description like pilot or sailor?
After all, NASA employs astronauts who are still waiting for their first trip off Earth. And flying in economy class from New York to Los Angeles does not qualify you as a pilot.
The FAA established its commercial astronaut wings program in 2004, spurred by the X Prize. That competition offered $10 million for the first nongovernmental entity to launch a reusable spacecraft to space with people on board — defined as reaching an altitude of 62 miles, the international definition of where space begins — and then do it again within two weeks.
The winning design was a space plane called SpaceShipOne, and the FAA bestowed the first commercial astronaut wings on Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie, the pilots who flew the two winning SpaceShipOne flights.
To qualify for the FAA’s distinction, a person had to reach an altitude of 50 miles — reflecting the earlier U.S. Air Force practice — and one had to be considered as part of “the flight crew,” which the federal agency defines as:
any employee or independent contractor of a licensee, transferee, or permittee, or of a contractor or subcontractor of a licensee, transferee, or permittee, who performs activities in the course of that employment or contract directly relating to the launch, re-entry, or other operation of or in a launch vehicle or re-entry vehicle that carries human beings.
Everyone else who goes to space is, in the FAA’s view, just a “spaceflight participant,” not an astronaut.
After the wings were awarded to Melvill and Binnie, the FAA did not award any other commercial astronaut wings until 2019, to Mark Stucky and Frederick W. Sturckow, the two pilots of Virgin Galactic’s larger successor of SpaceShipOne, aptly named SpaceShipTwo. Two other Virgin Galactic pilots received wings on the next SpaceShipTwo flight, as did Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor, who evaluated the crew cabin.
By contrast, the New Shepard spacecraft built by Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, is entirely automated, and all that the passengers had to do is enjoy the up-and-down ride last Tuesday, which lasted not much more than 10 minutes.
Thus, Bezos and the other three passengers — his brother Mark; Mary Wallace Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer; and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old Dutch student — appear to fall short of the criteria to be classified as flight crew and may not be eligible for the FAA astronaut wings. (That didn’t stop the foursome from having custom astronaut wings pinned to their flight suits last Tuesday.)
The crew definition, however, was vague enough that one could wonder whether a passenger could qualify as a contractor, and whether some of what they did could fall under the “other operation” part of the definition of crew.
On the same day that Bezos made his trip to space, the FAA added a new requirement for the astronaut wings: “Demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human spaceflight safety.”
A statement from the agency explains, “The FAA has now changed the focus to recognize flight crew who demonstrate activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human spaceflight safety, among other criteria. This change aligns more directly to the FAA’s role to protect public safety during commercial space operations.”
The New Shepard passengers do not appear to have performed such activities. A Blue Origin spokeswoman declined to say whether the company would nominate Bezos and the other passengers for the FAA commercial astronaut wings.
A Virgin Galactic spokesman said the company has started the paperwork to obtain FAA commercial astronaut wings for Branson and the other two first-time space flyers on the July 11 Virgin Galactic flight. Virgin Galactic is making the case that they were crew members, performing tasks to evaluate how the spacecraft experience will feel for future customers, although the company is still assessing the implications of the revised criteria.
The revised FAA criteria also, for the first time, creates honorary commercial astronaut wings “to individuals who demonstrated extraordinary contribution or beneficial service to the commercial human spaceflight industry.”
The honorary awardees would not have to meet all of the usual requirements.
In the end, it may not matter what the government thinks.
Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have each created their own astronaut pins to bestow on customers, who are likely to pay at least hundreds of thousands of dollars per flight.
In addition, an international organization of past and present astronauts, the Association of Space Explorers, has created pins to recognize everyone who goes to space. One design — an up-and-down chevron topped with a five-pointed star — is for people who go on short suborbital flights. For those who reach orbit, there’s a variation, adding a circle that indicates they have been around the planet.
About six years ago, Michael López-Alegría, then president of the association’s U.S. chapter, and Andrew Turnage, the group’s executive director, started discussing the idea of such pins.
NASA has given pins to its astronauts since the earliest days of the space program.
“But none of the other agencies have anything like that,” López-Alegría said. “So we thought about something, you know, as a universal pin, because that seems only fair that other countries ought to have something to wear as well.”
The association sidestepped the “astronaut” quandary by using the term “space travelers” instead. “There’s some variety of opinions within the membership and we shied away from using the word ‘astronaut’ on the certificates that accompany these pins,” López-Alegría said.
He presented one of the suborbital pins to Beth Moses of Virgin Galactic after her first flight.
López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, already owns a surfeit of astronaut paraphernalia. He has one of the Association of Space Explorers pins. He has the NASA pin, as well as wings as a Navy officer turned astronaut that he wore on his military uniform. “I have those, but I haven’t worn a Navy uniform since I’ve retired,” he said.
And he could get one of the FAA commercial astronaut wings next year. López-Alegría, vice president of business development at Axiom Space, a Houston company arranging trips by private citizens to the International Space Station, will be the commander of the first of Axiom’s missions, scheduled to launch in January.
López-Alegría, for one, would like the more expansive definition of astronaut, that it encompasses everyone who has left Earth’s atmosphere, even if just for a few minutes.
“There’s lots of different kinds of astronauts,” he said. “Private astronauts, national astronauts, company astronauts, whatever. But they’re all astronauts.”