Over the last two weeks, we saw the first two private commercial space flights. Both companies pinned their participants with their versions of “Astronaut Wings” but are they real astronauts? The FAA just released their requirements for the title of astronaut.

Commercial spaceflight in the United States is governed by the Federal Aviation Administration. They are also in charge of awarding the FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings to those that fly. While both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin can claim those that fly on their vehicles are astronauts, it doesn’t really hold any weight until the FAA agrees with them.

What are the FAA’s requirements for being an astronaut?

The FAA lays out three requirements for gaining your Commercial astronaut wings. First, you must meet the flight crew qualifications and training under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 460.

Secondly, you must fly as flight crew on an FAA-licensed vehicle above 50 miles.

And third, you must demonstrate activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or have contributed to human space flight safety.

What does this mean?

The long worded explanation can be simplified to this: be a member of a crew flying to space, fly higher than 50 miles, and contribute to the safety of the flight or public. The third requirement is certainly the most confusing one. Reading it brings up more questions than answers. What does it mean to have “contributed to human space flight safety”?

This could simply mean you followed the procedures and training you received from the company before the flight. The third requirement could also be interpreted to mean you didn’t do anything that could have caused harm to those in the vehicle or those viewing the launch. How exactly the FAA plans to interprete these vauge requirements remains to be seen.

Does Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s crews count as astronauts?

While we aren’t the FAA (and they haven’t made any decision on this yet), it seems possible that they all could qualify as astronauts under the new wings program. Although the FAA won’t grant you wings just for flying, the company that flew you (or someone a US government employee) has to send an application in for you. We’ve reached out to both companies for comments on this. Blue Origin told us to ask the FAA and we are still waiting for Virgin’s response.

The FAA’s Commercial Astronaut Wings.

Either way, the only statements from the FAA on Blue Origin’s flight used the term “flight participant”. This is the term they usually use instead of calling them astronauts. It is unsure when we might see the next person recieve a pair of FAA wings, although Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s own wings might be good enough for some.

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