New wrinkle for space tourism: Deciding who counts as an astronaut

Jeff Bezos is going to space today, but whether that makes him an astronaut is open to interpretation.

Why is this important: Bezos and his billionaire rival, Richard Branson, hope to lure wealthy clients into space tourism, in part, with the promise of becoming astronauts – but the definition of who is considered an astronaut is unclear.

  • “There is going to be a segment of the population lining up to ride [these suborbital rockets] because they’ve dreamed of being astronauts all their lives, and being told they aren’t astronauts would spoil the experience for them, “space historian Robert Pearlman told me.

How it works: The FAA, the US Army, and NASA all have different definitions of what it means to be referred to as an “astronaut” and none of them perfectly match the way Bezos’ Blue Origin or Branson’s Virgin Galactic do. business.

  • The definitions of NASA and the military have specific criteria and are reserved for their employees.
  • In order to receive commercial astronaut wings, you must be an employee of the company carrying out the launch, certified by the FAA, and be a crew member doing some sort of work during the mission.

The plot: It is possible that, by this definition, Branson would receive FAA commercial astronaut wings, while Bezos did not.

  • Virgin Galactic classified Branson as a crew member, whose job it was to assess the experience of astronauts. The Blue Origin vehicle that will carry Bezos today, however, is self-contained – no one on board needs to act as a pilot or flight crew.
  • Oliver Daemen, the 18-year-old paying customer on the Blue Origin flight, certainly won’t get any official FAA wings because he’s paying for the trip.

Between the lines: Fewer than 600 people have flown in space in history, and most of them have been government employees paid to explore, but this new era of commercial spaceflight opens up that opportunity – to see Earth against Earth. blackness of space – to many more people.

  • Virgin Galactic uses the border recognized by the United States to define where space begins – 50 miles high. Blue Origin’s vehicle will take its passengers beyond the Karman Line, the international border where space begins, approximately 100 km above the planet.
  • Virgin Galactic assigned its own wings to its astronauts after Branson and his teammates returned to Earth. It’s not yet clear whether Blue Origin will award its own astronaut wings as well.

What to watch: All of these questions about being an astronaut could become moot if the space tourism market really takes off.

  • If enough people are flying and prices drop enough, the term “astronaut” may follow the same path as the term “aviator” when commercial air travel became available to most members of the public.
  • Today, “aviator” is reserved for a small group of people who carry out risky flights, pushing the limits of what is possible. In the future, “astronaut” may become a similar designation, Pearlman said.

“No one had to intervene and say, “You’re not an aviator,” and that’s exactly what’s going to happen with “astronaut,” “Pearlman said. Who are going into space for exploration or so that’s their job. . “

About Theresa Burton

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