EL PASO, Texas – The Federal Aviation Administration has revised its criteria for awarding astronaut wings to those who fly in commercial spacecraft, making the requirements more stringent while including a significant loophole.
The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued an order on July 20 describing its FAA commercial space astronaut wing program and the award criteria. The order represents the first formal update to the wings program since its introduction in 2004.
According to the order, the FAA will assign wings to commercial launch crew members who meet the requirements of federal regulations for crew qualification and training, and will fly on an FAA authorized or authorized launch at an altitude at least 50 miles (80 kilometers). . The order also requires that these crew members have demonstrated “activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to the safety of human spaceflight.”
The last provision is new in the ordinance. A June 2020 FAA fact sheet said the requirements for the wings must be on an FAA licensed flight at least 50 miles away and meet FAA regulations for flight crew ratings and training.
“When the program was first created in 2004, its purpose was to recognize flight crew members who advanced the FAA’s mission of promoting the safety of vehicles designed to transport humans,” said the FAA in a statement to SpaceNews. “The FAA has now changed focus to recognize flight crews who demonstrate activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to the safety of human spaceflight, among other criteria.”
The change, the agency added, “aligns more directly with the role of the FAA to protect public safety during commercial space operations.”
The FAA awarded the first commercial astronaut wings in 2004 to Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, who flew the three SpaceShipOne flights that traveled more than 100 kilometers that year. The agency only awarded astronaut wings in 2019, when it gave wings to Mark Stucky and CJ Sturckow for flying Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo beyond 50 miles in December 2018, and David Mackay, Mike Masucci and Beth Moses for a SpaceShipTwo flight in February 2019.
All of the Astronaut Wing winners are pilots, with the exception of Moses, who was considered a crew member for the February 2019 flight to assess cabin conditions on SpaceShipTwo.
The latest flights of SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard have raised questions about who would be considered eligible for the FAA’s commercial astronaut wings. The July 11 SpaceShipTwo flight carried four people in the cabin: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, Moses and two other company employees. All four, according to the company, were evaluating cabin hardware or conducting an experiment to demonstrate human suborbital research, but did not necessarily support public safety or the safety of human spaceflight.
The July 20 New Shepard flight carried four people: company founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen. None of them, however, operated the spacecraft, which was designed to be controlled from the ground, and therefore would likely not meet FAA criteria for commercial astronaut wings.
“It’s an autonomous vehicle. There’s really nothing for a crew member to do, ”said Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, at a July 18 press conference on New Shepard’s upcoming flight.
However, the new decree allows the FAA to issue “honorary” wings to people who otherwise would not meet the criteria. These wings would go to “people who have demonstrated extraordinary contribution or beneficial service to the commercial human spaceflight industry,” the order said. “Those individuals who receive an honorary award may not be required to meet all of the eligibility requirements.”
The wings have no legal significance or other privileges. The FAA established them as part of its role of encouraging, facilitating and promoting commercial space transportation, in addition to overseeing its safety. They also reflect the astronaut wings awarded by NASA and the Department of Defense to its personnel who fly at altitudes above 50 miles.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic deliver their own astronaut wings to those who fly in their vehicles. Virgin Galactic awarded the four people in the cabin of the SpaceShipTwo flight with large wings on July 11. Blue Origin gave passengers on its July 20 New Shepard flight a letter A-shaped pin with a feather, part of the company logo, forming the letter’s crossbar.
In April, the Association of Space Explorers, the professional organization of space travelers, unveiled what it called the Universal Astronaut Badge, pins it would provide to anyone who has flown in the space, including tourists. The organization will have two versions, one for those who perform suborbital flights and one for orbital flights. In addition, the organization will keep a register of those who fly in space. Membership in the organization itself, however, is limited to people who have made at least one orbit around Earth in a spacecraft.