Being an astronaut is a big deal (even if it does have ‘naut’ in the name). There’s been some debate whether space tourists like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, and others with enough money to travel really high in the sky on a rocket of some description, deserve the title. America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which takes care of this sort of thing, has finally weighed in.
Bringing space tourists back to Earth
See, it’s not enough to go really, really high up. If that was the case, just about anybody with a large enough fuel source could manage it. People would become astronauts by accident. No, the FAA has a proper definition for inclusion into the FAA Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program (which is the official mark of an astronaut). And that’s just been revised.
The elevation requirement hasn’t really altered, so space tourists could technically be included in the club provided they travel “beyond 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth as flight crew on an FAA/AST licensed or permitted launch or reentry vehicle.” Which is a little over 80km above the Earth’s service. Technically, Branson’s Virgin Galactic is a licensed vehicle and it travels beyond that point, but there’s one other requirement before you get those coveted wings.
In order to nab a set of Commercial Space Astronaut Wings, you also need to demonstrate “…activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or [contribute] to human space flight safety.” Just having loads of money doesn’t fit the bill, no matter what your capitalist overlords instruct you to the contrary.
But, because money is still somewhat useful, there’s a loophole for those with loads of cash — an honorary award given to those “whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition”. This part is where the super-rich might earn their astronaut’s wings — they’ll be honorary astronauts. But the space tourists that follow them? Unless they’re doing scientific experiments on the way there (and the few minutes they’re up there), it’s highly unlikely they’ll make the cut.