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EXPLAINED: High Enough But Not Quite There? Why Bezos, Branson May Have To Wait To Claim Astronaut Tag

By: Kenneth Mohanty


Last Updated: July 25, 2021, 18:22 IST

Astronaut in space. Representative image via Canva.

Astronaut in space. Representative image via Canva.

They are a new generation of space pioneers, but updated requirements have triggered speculation whether Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson can be called astronauts

Now that 10 more people have touched space in a span of about 10 days — to join a list of less than 600 people cumulatively who are officially recognised as having gone to space — a lot of attention is being given to the definition of space travel and the question as to who qualifies to be an astronaut. As e-tail giant Amazon founder Jeff Bezos landed back on Earth following his July 20 tryst with space, US authorities said that they were revising the criteria for space travel. That threatens to demote Bezos and Virgin Galactic boss Richard Branson, who made his own spaceflight on July 11, to the rank of flyers who went higher than most air passengers even though the stated goal of these billionaires with their suborbital flights is to bring space flight closer to paying travellers. So, who decides what is an astronaut, and what does it take to be one?

Who Is An Astronaut?

Well, there is no universally recognised definition. Even in the US, there are different approaches to determining who can stake a claim to that tag. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for the US military and its space agency Nasa space starts “at 50 miles above Earth’s surface… (and) pilots, mission specialists and civilians who cross this boundary are officially deemed astronauts".

The term ‘astronaut’ itself is a derivation from the Greek words meaning ‘space sailor’ and Nasa adds that it refers to “all who have been launched as crew members aboard Nasa spacecraft bound for orbit and beyond".

“The term ‘astronaut’ has been maintained as the title for those selected to join the Nasa corps of astronauts who make ‘space sailing’ their career profession," the US space agency says.

Why Is There A Doubt Whether Bezos, Branson Qualify?

The day that Bezos made his suborbital trip on a rocket made by his Blue Origin space company, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), issued new guidelines laying down exactly who it is that can be regarded as being an astronaut.

In its order effective July 20, 2021, FAA said that while astronaut candidates must have “demonstrated flight beyond 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth", they must also have “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety". Reports say that that jeopardises Bezos and Branson’s objective of being regarded as space travellers because they may not meet all the stipulations for being an astronaut.

While Branson and five other crew members touched an elevation of more than 86km on their supersonic plane, VSS Unity, the height Bezos and his three fellow flyers hit perched inside a capsule attached on top of their New Shepard booster was about 104km. Thus, both of them qualify to be astronauts per the FAA’s definition of commercial spaceflight. However, the additional conditions laid down by the FAA may technically deny them astronaut wings.

Then there is the definition of space itself. Notwithstanding the US definition, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), and many other organisations deem the Karman Line — a notional boundary 100km above the Earth’s surface — as where space begins. While Bezos went past this line, Branson didn’t. Even so, the fact that both made suborbital flights, that is, they didn’t go high enough, or fast enough, to enter orbit around the Earth, has prompted experts to question whether their trips count as spaceflight, especially when the International Space Station sits more than 200 miles above the Earth’s surface.

What Are The Qualifications Needed To Be An Astronaut?

Again, there are no universally recognised guidelines. The substantial conditions laid down by FAA for space crew include “training on how to carry out his or her role on board or on the ground so that the vehicle will not harm the public". Further, each member of a flight crew “must demonstrate an ability to withstand the stresses of space flight, which may include high acceleration or deceleration, microgravity, and vibration, in sufficient condition…"

Then there are the Nasa rules. The US space agency says that, in order to be an astronaut, apart from being a US citizen, an applicant must possess a master’s degree in a science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) field and have “at least two years of related professional experience… or at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft". The candidate must also be “able to pass the Nasa long-duration flight astronaut physical".

Reports say that Bezos and crew had about 14 hours of training spanning two days before their flight. Although one of his fellow flyers, 82-year-old American aviation icon Wally Funk — who was selected to be an astronaut in the 1960s but did not make a trip to space — is reported to have close to 20,000 flight hours on a variety of aircraft.

Blue Origin officials said that the crew were trained for ordinary and extraordinary flight situations and emergency procedures even though they were required to perform no functions on their trip as the entire New Shepard flight is autonomous, meaning there are no pilots and the flight is controlled from a ground station.

Branson had earlier said that he was undergoing a range of training exercises to prepare for his flight, including “astronaut training… centrifuge and other training".

So, Will Bezos, Branson Be Regarded As Astronauts?

The latest FAA regulations have a provision for ‘Honorary Awards’ for “individuals whose contribution to commercial human spaceflight merits special recognition". The agency said it may confer “FAA honorary award of Commercial Space Astronaut Wings to individuals who demonstrated extraordinary contribution or beneficial service to the commercial human spaceflight industry".

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    Importantly, those identified for an honorary award “may not be required to satisfy all eligibility requirements". But such candidates must be nominated by the FAA, US Department of Transportation, or the US government or by FAA licensed launch and/or reentry vehicle operators. However, a spokesperson told CNN that “there are no nominations currently before the FAA to review".

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    first published:July 25, 2021, 16:54 IST
    last updated:July 25, 2021, 18:22 IST