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FAA changes policy on who qualifies for commercial astronaut wings on same day as Blue Origin spaceflight

On the same day as Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a change to its Commercial Astronaut Wings Program for the first time in 17 years. This shift at the dawn of the space tourism era means the US government may not formally recognize that billionaires Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson became astronauts when they blasted into space earlier this month.

Before the FAA issued the new restrictions, Bezos, along with three other crewmates who flew with the Blue Origin founder, would have qualified to receive FAA commercial astronaut wings. That’s because the travelers flew to an altitude of at least 50 miles (80.5 kilometers), the US-recognized boundary of space.

That was true until a few days ago.

Effective July 20, the FAA issued one more critical criterion: Commercial launch crew members must also demonstrate “activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety,” an FAA spokesperson said, quoting the new order.

Astronaut wings were first awarded in the early 1960s to the Mercury 7 astronauts Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Virgil “Gus” Grissom by the US Navy and the US Air Force, respectively. It became a rite of passage for all NASA astronauts, from the Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle progam. The FAA created the Commercial Astronaut Wings Program in 2004 after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne became the first private spacecraft to reach space.

David Mackay and Mike Masucci, the two pilots for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flight on July 11, had already received their astronaut wings. So had one of the mission specialists, Beth Moses, on a previous test flight. But the three other mission specialists, including Branson, were first-time fliers and were on board to either evaluate the astronaut experience or conduct suborbital scientific research. Neither activity would explicitly qualify them to receive their wings under the FAA’s new order.

The four crew members on board Blue Origin’s first crewed flight did even less during their 10-minute-long suborbital flight. The company’s CEO, Bob Smith, explained during a prelaunch mission briefing that the New Shepard spacecraft “is an autonomous vehicle. There’s really nothing for a crew member to go do.”

A spokesperson for the FAA said the shift was made because it “aligns more directly to the FAA’s role to protect public safety during commercial space operations.” The FAA did not respond to an inquiry about why the change took effect on the same day as the Blue Origin flight.

When asked what the change in policy means for the most recent space tourists, an FAA spokesperson said that, in order to get astronaut wings, a nomination is required.

“There are no nominations currently before the FAA to review,” the spokesperson said.

There is one caveat in the new regulations that may still allow Branson, Bezos and some of their crewmates a chance to become formally recognized by the FAA as astronauts. The new order allows the agency to issue an honorary award to “individuals whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition.” It’s up to the sole discretion of FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation to determine who qualifies for the “honorary” astronaut wings.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment about whether or not they plan to nominate any of their recent crew members, including Bezos and Branson, for the program.

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