It seems like the Federal Aviation Administration is firing a shot across the bow at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Just as Bezos and his three other passengers were preparing to ride his rocket up to the edge of space, the FAA issued a change to its definition of who does or doesn’t qualify for the coveted astronaut “wings” that are earned by those who travel into space. No longer will simply breaking the plane defining where the atmosphere ends and space begins be enough. You actually have to do something productive to qualify. And it sounds like Bezos doesn’t make the cut. (Gizmodo)
Specifically, the updates concern the FAA’s Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program, and the criteria used to award those commanding, piloting, or working on privately funded spacecraft with the coveted astronaut wings badge. And Bezos, as it turns out, just doesn’t make the cut.
First, aside from flying in a craft that meets the FAA’s basic standards, the guidelines state that candidates need to fly more than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface in order to qualify. Bezos actually met that bar during his flight—in fact, he went a full 62 miles above sea level. The main issue is that he didn’t really do much during that flight. In the past, we’ve seen these wings awarded to pilots, like those leading the 2004 SpaceShipOne flight and the SpaceShipTwo in 2018. A year after that, the first woman (and non-pilot) would be awarded her wings when the FAA gave a pair to Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor.
The change to the FAA guidelines for earning your Commercial Space Astronaut Wings says that the person in question must have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.”
This probably seems like a rather pointless argument and I’m not particularly invested in the question, but I can also understand the point they are making. When we think of astronauts, most of us probably picture someone piloting a rocket into space or performing some sort of work such as repairing a space telescope or conducting scientific experiments on the ISS. The New Shepard is a fully automated craft that doesn’t even have any controls installed in it for manual control of the craft. Bezos and his customers were nothing more than “passengers” in every sense of the word.
The passengers aside from Bezos fell short of qualifying in another sense. The FAA definition of astronaut also specifies that the person must be part of “the crew.” The FAA defines a crew member as “employees or contractors associated with a company involved in the spacecraft’s launch.” Bezos was the only one who could have qualified under that definition.
Nobody on the flight was doing any science experiments or anything else related to “public safety.” They were all along for the ride, enjoying the view of the curvature of the planet and unbuckling to have fun floating around the cabin for two or three minutes. They were space tourists in the purest sense of the term. The crews on Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon flights are riding in a largely automated system also, but they at least have computer consoles and controls with the ability to take over if the need arises.
The FAA announcement makes the emotional outpourings from the Blue Origin ground control team all the more awkward. The woman broadcasting to the passengers breathlessly addressed them as “Astronaut Bezos” and “Astronaut Daemen,” etc. Upon landing, they were all presented with special Blue Origin “wings” to pin on their jumpsuits. Those are totally unofficial, of course, but if you’re going to pay somebody a quarter of a million dollars for a seven-minute ride, you probably expect some sort of souvenir to commemorate the trip.
As I said, however, this all strikes me as a bit silly. In a sense, I suppose there is a bit of a “stolen valor” feel to all of this. Those tourists clearly didn’t put in the work and take the risks that the early test pilots who first launched into the void did. But at the same time, if you agreed to strap yourself in on top of a huge pile of dynamite and get blasted far enough into the sky to reach something close to zero gravity and you want to call yourself an astronaut, I’m probably not going to get too upset about it.