Who can be called an astronaut? It is complicated

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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have started his own private spaceflight company, funded the development of new rockets and capsules, and soared to the edge of space, but even that doesn’t make any difference. him an astronaut, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

While Bezos’ suborbital space flight earlier this week – and billionaire Richard Branson’s trip to the edge of space on July 11 – signaled that the space tourism industry could take off soon, the FAA recently tightened its rules. on who is considered an astronaut.

The restrictions have significant implications for the private spaceflight industry, making it harder for Bezos and others to gain commercial astronaut wings.

Three agencies in the United States can designate people as astronauts: NASA, the FAA, and the United States military. Each has a different definition of who qualifies for the title, but with NASA and the military, the distinction is only reserved for their employees who meet specific criteria.

In a political ordinance that came into effect on July 20, the FAA set out three main eligibility requirements for commercial astronauts. Commercial launch crew members must be employed by an FAA certified company performing the launch; they must reach an altitude greater than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface during flight; and they must have demonstrated activities during the mission that were “essential to public safety, or contributed to the safety of human spaceflight”.

Under these rules, space tourists who pay for suborbital or orbital rides are not eligible to receive astronaut wings.

In the cases of Branson and Bezos, however, things are a bit more murky because what counts as “essential” activities for public safety or the safety of human spaceflight is at the discretion of the FAA.

Branson’s launch, aboard the Unity space plane powered by his own company Virgin Galactic, has been designated as a test flight, which could meet the FAA’s requirement that crew members perform tasks that contribute to the safety of human spaceflight.

Branson and his fellow travelers, chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, chief operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs, are all employees of Virgin Galactic, and their flight has reached an altitude of about 53 miles, which would satisfy the rest of the FAA. rules.

Moses already owns a pair of commercial astronaut wings, awarded in April 2019, during a previous test flight with Virgin Galactic. She also holds the distinction of being the first woman to fly at the edge of space in a commercial vehicle.

FAA officials will likely have an easier time ruling out Bezos’ eligibility.

Bezos was launched aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and capsule on July 20 along with three other passengers: his brother, Mark, the 82-year-old former pilot Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old Dutchman.

The New Shepard rocket and capsule are designed to fly autonomously, which means Blue Origin passengers do not perform any essential tasks during the flight. Daemen’s father also paid for his trip to suborbital space, which automatically makes the Dutch teenager ineligible for astronaut status.

It is possible, however, that an exception will be made for Funk, which launched with Blue Origin 60 years after he was denied the opportunity to go to space as a NASA astronaut. .

The FAA may award honorary astronaut wings to “persons whose contribution to commercial human spaceflight deserves special recognition.”

Funk was one of 13 Mercury women who trained in the 1960s to demonstrate that women could qualify for the NASA Astronaut Corps. She and the other women were ultimately refused entry because women were not accepted into NASA’s astronaut class until 1978.

As space tourism intensifies, one of the big draws is the idea that ordinary civilians – although wealthy individuals who can afford the high price of a ticket to space – might call themselves astronauts. . Despite the FAA tightening its definition of who qualifies as a commercial astronaut, space historian and author Andrew Chaikin doesn’t think it will dampen enthusiasm for the burgeoning industry.

“I think the motivation for space tourism is that people just want to have that experience,” he said. “I don’t think the rest of the world pays so much attention to whether or not the FAA awards astronaut wings to one person rather than another.”

And it may be that as suborbital and orbital spaceflight occurs with more regularity and access to space expands considerably in the future, the language and labels surrounding such operations could change. radically, he said.

“The people who flew balloons from the 18th century to the 19th century were called aeronauts, which seems so archaic to us now,” Chaikin said. “If you go on vacation and take a hot air balloon ride today, no one will call you an aeronaut.”

Likewise, the word “astronaut”, with all the responsibilities and meanings that it implies, could end up becoming obsolete, he said.

“I like the term space traveler,” Chaikin said. “Anyone who flies in space, regardless of ability, is a space traveler. In the years to come, people might go to space not for science, but just to do their job. . Maybe he is the manager of a hotel in orbit. I don’t know you would call this person an astronaut. But you would call them a space traveler. “


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