Are space tourists astronauts? The FAA has decided that as of 2022 commercial astronauts will no longer receive the "astronaut wings" badge.
The year 2021 was a record year, as far as human presence in Earth orbit is concerned: on July 11, with Sir Richard Branson's suborbital trip on Virgin Galactic, a new era for space tourism began.
Only from July to September, there were 11 civilians in orbit on commercial flights. And according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they will likely be among the last commercial astronauts to boast "astronaut wings."
The space tourism boom
In the past year, 15 space tourists have been awarded astronaut badges by the FAA. To get an idea of the epochal change of pace, just think that in the previous 15 years only 7 people traveled to space on FAA-authorized vehicles (in all these calculations, Russians do not count).
The new era of space tourism has broken several records, sending into space among others the youngest and the oldest person ever to have traveled beyond the Earth's boundaries, respectively Hayley Arceneaux, on SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission, and William Shatner - Star Trek's Captain Kirk who at age 90 flew on Blue Origin's NS-18.
Just yesterday, a Blue Origin commercial flight broke another record, that of the number of civilians in orbit, flying 6 people on the New Shepard, including the daughter of the first US astronaut to travel in space, to whom Jeff Bezos' rocket is dedicated, Laura Shepard Churchley.
The legitimacy of calling space tourists "astronauts" has long been debated: indeed, the commercial astronaut badge, created to encourage private missions into space now nearly two decades ago, probably didn't include the 4-minute suborbital jumps sold by Bezos and Branson among the commercial developments in space exploration.
So Captain Kirk, but also Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have today their own astronaut wings, but they will be among the last commercial astronauts to be able to boast the important recognition.
The so-called "astronaut wings" are the special badge awarded by the FAA to commercial astronauts, i.e. civilians, who unlike actual NASA astronauts do not work for the U.S. military. The "commercial astronaut" category was created in 2004 for the purpose of encouraging private missions into orbit and space, and it seems to have served its purpose - even beyond expectations.
But when Jeff Bezos spent a few minutes in the suborbital with three "vacationing" buddies on July 20, the FAA found itself having to add a special requirement for access to astronaut wings, namely that of having "demonstrated during the flight activities essential to public safety, or contributed to the safety of human spaceflight".
The suspicion that a first-class trip was not quite the same as a mission into space was already alive. And it wasn't long before the FAA decided, in a memo a couple of days ago, to revoke the popular program that bestowed astronaut badges on space tourists.
According to a statement released by FAA Administrator Wayne Monteith, "the astronaut wing program has served its original purpose of bringing more attention to these exciting missions. Now it's time to offer recognition to a larger group of space adventurers."
Seeing that the number of space tourists is set to skyrocket in the coming years, the FAA has decided that beginning in 2022 all future commercial astronauts will no longer receive a badge, but merely a mention on a list on the FAA's website.