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Who gets to be called an astronaut? It's complicated

The space tourism industry is poised to take off, but the FAA recently tightened its rules on who qualifies for commercial astronaut wings.
Jeff Bezos at Blue Origin's West Texas launch facility April 24, 2015. AFP - Getty Images

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

While Bezos' suborbital spaceflight earlier this week — and fellow billionaire Richard Branson's trip to the edge of space July 11 — signaled that the space tourism industry could soon be taking off, the FAA recently tightened its rules on who is considered an astronaut.

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

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

In a policy order that went into effect July 20, the FAA outlined 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 higher than 50 miles above the surface of the Earth during flight; and they must have demonstrated activities during the mission that were "essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety."

Under these rules, space tourists who pay for suborbital or orbital joyrides are ineligible to receive astronaut wings.

In Branson's and Bezos' cases, however, things are a little murkier because what counts as "essential" activities for public safety or human spaceflight safety is up to the FAA's discretion.

Branson's launch, aboard his own company Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered Unity space plane, was designated a test flight, which could satisfy the FAA's requirement that crew members perform tasks that contribute to the safety of human spaceflight.

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

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

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

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

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

It's possible, though, that an exception may be made for Funk, whose launch with Blue Origin came 60 years after she was denied the opportunity to go to space as a NASA astronaut.

The FAA can award honorary astronaut wings to “individuals whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition.”

Funk was one of the Mercury 13 women who underwent training in the 1960s to demonstrate that women could qualify for NASA’s astronaut corps. She and the other women were ultimately denied entry because females were not accepted into NASA's astronaut class until 1978.

As space tourism ramps up, one big draw is the idea that ordinary civilians — albeit wealthy individuals who can foot the hefty price tag of a ticket to space — could 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 wider world pays that much attention to whether or not the FAA awards astronaut wings to one person over another."

And it may be that as suborbital and orbital spaceflights happen with more regularity, and as access to space significantly expands in the future, the language and labels around such operations could change dramatically, he said.

"The people who flew balloons from the 18th century into the 19th century were called aeronauts, which sounds so archaic to us now," Chaikin said. "If you go on vacation and get on a balloon ride today, nobody is going to call you an aeronaut."

In that same way, the word "astronaut," along with all the responsibilities and significance it connotes, may eventually go out of usage, according to him.

"I like the term space traveler," Chaikin said. "Anybody who flies in space, whatever their capacity, is a space traveler. In years to come, people might go up to space not for science but just as a requirement to do their job. Maybe it's a manager of an orbiting hotel. I don't know that you would call that person an astronaut. But you would call them a space traveler."