Are billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson astronauts? Short answer — the Federal Aviation Administration says no.
July was a big month for the space tourism industry as Amazon founder Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Branson took their own trips to space. Bezos took off on a suborbital space flight last week while Branson reached the edge of space on July 11 both in their own ships.
However, the FAA recently tightened its rules on who is considered an astronaut, and currently, the two of them don’t fall under those qualifications.
The new restrictions make it harder for Bezos and others in the private spaceflight industry to earn commercial astronaut wings. The FAA says these revisions to the “astronaut” definition were made “in order to maintain the prestige of Commercial Space Astronaut Wings.”
According to a policy order that went into effect on July 20, the FAA outlined three eligibility requirements needed to be qualified as an astronaut:
- Flight crew members must be employed by an FAA-certified company performing the launch, such as NASA, the FAA or the U.S. military
- The crew must reach an altitude higher than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface during the flight
- They must face demonstrated activities during the flight that were “essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety”
Under these rules, those who pay for suborbital or orbital rides to space are ineligible to be an astronaut, like Bezos and Branson.
Even though the duo reached space, their space wings may only be honorary. However, the FAA can award honorary astronaut wings to “individuals whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition.”
This update from the FAA was announced the same day as Bezos’ suborbital trip on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on July 20.
This is the first time in 17 years the official rules were changed.