Astro-Not?: Do space tourists qualify as ‘astronauts’? U.S. aviation agency issues fresh orders

A new order issued by the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration might settle the debate that has irked space purists.  

Astro-Not?: Do space tourists qualify as ‘astronauts’? U.S. aviation agency issues fresh orders
Representational Image Image credit: European Space Agency

Not everyone who’s been on a ship is called a sailor, not everyone who’s been on a plane is called a pilot and by this logic, should everyone who’s been to the edge of space be called an astronaut?

Ever since Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin completed their successful space flights, those aboard are being hailed ‘astronauts’ and tickets are being offered to future ‘astronauts’. Such announcements have irked space purists who believe that calling people who took a paid hop to the edge of space for a few minutes as astronauts belittles the achievements of those who’ve trained for years and performed dangerous manoeuvres and spacewalks for the benefit of humanity.

“There is a clear distinction between people who are professionally trained to go up in space and those that will make it there because they are rich,” says Prof Jayant Murthy, senior professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics.

Oxford dictionary defines an astronaut as “a person whose job involves travelling and working in a spacecraft.” On the other hand, as per Merriam-webster, an astronaut is “a person who travels beyond the earth’s atmosphere.”

As per international standards, Earth’s atmosphere ends at 62 miles and space begins from thereon. This is known as the Karman Line. But in the US, this threshold is down to 50 miles above Earth’s surface.

Branson’s flight flew to a height of 53 miles whereas Bezos and his team flew as high as 65 miles.

If this is alone is considered the criteria, then the VG and BO crew and every subsequent customer will qualify as an astronaut.

But a new order issued by the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration over the FAA Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program could see more clarity over the issue before commercial space flights become the norm.

The order outlines the guidelines, eligibility, and criteria for someone to be eligible to be recognized as an astronaut, in the US.

Those who believe that they qualify can send their applications to the FAA and the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST-1) will be responsible for verification of claims and awarding the wings.

Here are the qualifications as per the new order:  

  • Meet the requirements for flight crew qualifications and training under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 460.
  • Demonstrated flight beyond 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth as flight crew on an FAA/AST licensed or permitted launch or reentry vehicle.
  • Demonstrated activities during the flight that are essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety
  • Honorary awards to those who have made a significant contribution to the commercial human space flight industry

Flight crew qualifications and training under Title 14 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 460 require the crew to have extensive training and also know their roles during abort or emergency scenarios. They also need to train for various stresses of space flight so that they are physically and mentally fit throughout the space flight.

Besides, they will have to receive mission-specific training and carry required documents approved by the FAA.

The entire list of flight crew qualifications and training under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 460 can be read here.

So, the all-important question is – will those who fly with VG and BO qualify as astronauts?

Depends. While ‘space tourists’, whose only objective is to enjoy the view from the edge of space, will meet certain training requirements, their space flight won’t serve any other mission or purpose, and hence they might not make the cut.

On the contrary, there have been several animals that have been sent to space and are regarded as ‘animal astronauts’ purely because their spaceflights had a purpose and benefited the space industry.

But the commercial space flights won’t be limited to tourists alone, even researchers and experts will venture over the edge of space for research purposes and such people might be awarded the FAA Commercial Space Astronaut Wings.

As far as the first flights of both VG and BO are concerned, either all the crew members might be awarded the wings for the significance of their flights or the honour might be reserved for a few. Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos would be expected to qualify based on the honorary basis. While the VG crew had been assigned specific missions, the Blue Origin crew were more like tourists and thus the entire Virgin Galactic crew, including the VSS Unity pilots, might earn their Commercial astronaut wings.

But another important question is, what do you call those that have been to the edge of space but don’t qualify as astronauts? Astro-nots?  Astronoughts? Almost-astronauts? Not-exactly-astronauts? Nearly-astronauts, or simply, high-fliers? Let us know your suggestions.