Jeff Bezos And Richard Branson Are Not Astronauts, Say Recently Updated US Guidelines

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson reaching the edge of space on July 11, 2021. Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

Bad news, billionaires. On the same day Jeff Bezos blasted off on Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed spaceflight, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) updated its definition of a "commercial astronaut.” As per the new criteria, Amazon’s ex-CEO and fellow rich-guy-who-went-to-space Sir Richard Branson may not be considered astronauts in the eyes of the FAA's Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program. According to the program's first rule change since 2004, astronauts must be part of the flight crew and make contributions to space flight safety. 

The “billionaire space race” was taken up a notch this month. Instead of the old space race of nuclear-armed superpowers vying for space exploration supremacy, this new showdown involves men with inordinate amounts of money using their wealth to build commercial spaceflight services. The aim is to make space travel more accessible with the view of spreading humanity across the Solar System and beyond, free from Earth and its labor laws.

Blue Origin's first-ever human space flight was launched to the upper stretches of Earth’s atmosphere on July 20. Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, was joined by his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year old Dutch student Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk. Funk is an 82-year old pilot who was part of the so-called Mercury 13, the thirteen American women who passed all the same physiological screening tests necessary to join NASA's astronaut corps in 1961 but were excluded from going to space. (It would be 22 years before Sally Ride became the first US woman in space.)

Unfortunately for Bezos, the richest man in the Solar System, the Blue Origin mission was narrowly beaten to the punch by Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 mission, which saw British billionaire Branson reach the edge of space on July 11.

To be granted “commercial astronaut wings” by the FAA, personnel must reach an altitude of 80 kilometers (50 miles) above the Earth's surface. (It's worth noting that aside from the FAA and NASA, the world governing body for aeronautic and astronautic records, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, considers "space" to be the Kármán line – the imaginary boundary 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level.) While Bezos and Branson did meet the FAA's criterion, the new definition also requires travelers to have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” 

Did their missions achieve this? Well, that’s up for debate. While it could be argued the launches may eventually lead the way towards technological developments that makes it easier and cheaper to launch satellites and astronauts in the future, it could also be argued that these feats were little more than ticks on a billionaire bucket list. 

However, honorary commercial astronaut wings can be awarded by the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation to individuals who demonstrate an “extraordinary contribution or beneficial service to the commercial human space flight industry.”

The FAA hasn’t commented directly on the recent flights of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, but a spokesperson from the federal agency told CNN they are not currently reviewing any submissions.


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