This morning marked the launch of the latest Blue Origin passenger flight to the edge of space. Two celebrity (non-paying) guests, former New York Giants running back Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of Alan Shepard, were onboard. They were joined by four wealthy customers who paid Jeff Bezos for their own very expensive tickets. But does making the ascent up to the point of nearly zero gravity and floating around for three minutes before gliding back to earth make you an astronaut? Not in the opinion of the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that awards astronaut wings to those who venture up and out of the planet’s atmosphere. They announced this week (probably not coincidentally) that as of the end of this year they will no longer be awarding the coveted wings to “commercial astronauts” beginning on January 1st. They are ending their commercial flight commemoration program for the simple reason that “too many people are now launching into space.”
Heads up, future space travelers: No more commercial astronaut wings will be awarded from the Federal Aviation Administration after this year.
The FAA said Friday it’s clipping its astronaut wings because too many people are now launching into space.
The news comes one day ahead of Blue Origin’s planned liftoff from West Texas with former NFL player and TV celebrity Michael Strahan. He and his five fellow passengers will still be eligible for wings since the FAA isn’t ending its long-standing program until Jan. 1.
This is the second time that the FAA has waded into this debate and made policy changes. After Bezos and his son went up on Blue Origin they essentially “awarded” themselves wings created by his company. But at that time, the FAA changed the technical definition of an astronaut to specify that you have to actually do something while you are in space. That could be anything from piloting the craft to doing repairs or science experiments on the ISS. Those sorts of responsibilities qualify you as a member of “the crew” of the craft.
Later, despite having made those changes, the FAA decided to award wings to all fifteen “passengers” who went into orbit this year in the interest of “inclusivity.” They also awarded the wings to the four crew members of the first SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule last year. But as of January 1st, you will need to be an actual NASA astronaut or a member of a flight crew doing work for NASA or a commercial space venture to qualify.
As I said the last time this subject came up, this wasn’t the sort of thing that I was going to be pulling my hair out over no matter which way the decision went. But with that said, handing out wings to any of these billionaires that really are nothing but passengers in the back seat of a very expensive Uber ride up into the air does kind of cheapen the accomplishments of all the actual astronauts who risked their lives to get us where we are today. Convincing Brandon Brown to let you strap into the passenger seat of his stock car and go for a lap around the Indianapolis Speedway doesn’t make you a racecar driver.
And the touristy nature of these trips on Bezos’ capsules really can’t be overstated. Not only is Blue Origin not doing any sort of science or useful work for the few minutes it’s at peak altitude, but there isn’t even a pilot onboard. The capsule is completely automated and there aren’t any controls on board to steer the craft even if you wanted to. Many of the functions of the SpaceX Crew Dragon are controlled by computer functions, but there are at least two pilot stations where they can take manual control when needed and substantial training is required to man those controls.
The six people who went up on that flight today absolutely went into space. But much like reporters who traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq to cover the wars were not soldiers, these tourists are not astronauts. We wouldn’t pin combat medals on a CNN news crew and we probably shouldn’t pin wings on Michael Strahan. And yet we will. It’s only the people who come after him who will miss out on that recognition.