US makes it harder for Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson to be called astronaut

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in Seattle in a June 2014 file image. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/TNS)

When billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson went to space in their private suborbital flights earlier this month, the space tourists were called commercial astronauts by many. But the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has tightened its definition of the word “astronaut”, making it harder for people like Bezos and Branson to be called commercial astronauts.

The FAA is the only US agency that awards astronaut wings to passengers on a commercial spacecraft since the Nasa and US military recognises only their employees as astronauts. On Tuesday, the agency published updated guidelines, eligibility, and criteria for the Commercial Space Astronaut Wings program.

According to the updated eligibility requirements, space explorers must go through the required training to be certified as an astronaut and fly beyond 80 kilometres above the Earth surface as a flight crew on a permitted launch or reentry vehicle. They also must have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.”

The updated guidelines were published the same day Amazon CEO along with three other crew members blasted off his Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket-and-capsule combo and touched down after about 10 minutes of flight. New Shepard was a fully autonomous spacecraft and didn’t have any Blue Origin staff onboard during its maiden human spaceflight.

Since the flight was completely computer-controlled from Earth, Jeff Bezos and other space tourists didn’t contribute to human space flight safety during the flight. This means the four New Shepard passengers wouldn’t qualify for astronaut wings under the new FAA rules. While Branson and other passengers on SpaceShipTwo were designated by Virgin Galactic as crew members testing the spacecraft, it’s not clear whether they “contributed to human space flight safety.”

However, founders of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic could still be awarded honorary astronauts wings if the FAA believes their contribution to commercial human spaceflight “merits special recognition.” The associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST-1) has complete discretion in bestowing honorary wings for demonstrating “extraordinary contribution or beneficial service to the commercial human space flight industry.”


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