In a move that pours cold water on the dreams of some billionaire space explorers, the United States has tightened its definition of the word “astronaut.”
New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules state that hopeful astronauts must be part of the flight crew and contribute to the safety of spaceflight.
This means that Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson may not yet be astronauts in the eyes of the US government.
These are the first changes since the FAA’s wing program began in 2004.
Updates to the Commercial Astronaut Wings program were announced on Tuesday – the same day Amazon’s Mr. Bezos flew aboard a Blue Origin rocket to the edge of space.
To qualify as commercial astronauts, space explorers must travel 80 km above the Earth’s surface, which Mr. Bezos and Mr. Branson have accomplished.
But aside from altitude, the agency says future astronauts must also have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to the safety of human spaceflight.”
What exactly matters as such is determined by FAA officials.
In a statement, the FAA said the changes further aligns the wing layout with its role in protecting public safety during commercial spaceflight.
On July 11, Sir Richard flew aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space as a test before clearing customers to board next year.
Mr. Bezos and the three other crew members who flew on Blue Origin’s spacecraft may be less entitled to the coveted title. Ahead of the launch, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said that “there really is nothing for a crew member to do” on the autonomous vehicle.
Those who wish for commercial wings should also be nominated for them. An FAA spokesperson told CNN that they are not currently reviewing any submissions.
There are two other ways to earn astronaut wings in the United States – through the military or through NASA.
The wings spotted on Mr Bezos and Sir Richard after their flights were pins custom-made by their own companies.
However, a glimmer of hope remains for Sir Richard, Mr. Bezos and all future astronomers wishing to be recognized as astronauts.
The new order notes that honorary awards may be bestowed on the basis of merit – at the discretion of the FAA Associate Administrator.
Astronaut wings were first awarded to astronauts Alan Shepard Jr and Virgin Grissom in the early 1960s for their participation in the Mercury Seven program.
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