Jeff Bezos' astronaut wings might only be 'honorary' after the FAA changed the definition of an astronaut

·3 min read
Jeff Bezos speaks with microphone about his space flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard during a press conference.
Jeff Bezos speaks about his flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard into space during a press conference on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jeff Bezos might have reached the edge of space, but his astronaut status may only be "honorary," according to new criteria from the Federal Aviation Administration.

On the day Bezos launched, July 20, the Federal Aviation Administration updated its guidelines on whether future space travelers can join the ranks of astronaut. It was the first significant change to the rules since 2004.

The FAA's Commercial Astronaut Wings Program awards wing pins to officially recognize commercial-spacecraft passengers as astronauts. For Bezos and the three other passengers who launched on Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket on Tuesday, the new updates may affect their eligibility for the official wings.

The Astronaut Wings program requires that astronauts be "flight crew" aboard an FAA-licensed flight and soar at least 50 miles above Earth's surface. Bezos's flight meets those requirements. But the updated criteria also require that flight crew will have"demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety."

The new shepard rocket lifting off
Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket launches its first passengers from the company's Launch Site 1 near Van Horn, Texas, July 20, 2021. Joe Skipper/Reuters

Bezos and his fellow travelers - his brother Mark, 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk, and 18-year-old customer Oliver Daemen - were probably not essential to the safety of their launch. The New Shepard craft is completely autonomous and had flown without humans 15 times before Tuesday's launch. Bezos and the other passengers may only qualify as spaceflight participants, not flight crew.

"When the program was first created in 2004, its focus was to recognize flight crewmembers who furthered the FAA's mission to promote the safety of vehicles designed to carry humans," an FAA spokesperson told Insider via email. "This change aligns more directly to the FAA's role to protect public safety during commercial space operations."

However, the FAA's amended guidelines also added the option for honorary astronaut wings, which can be awarded to people who don't meet all eligibility requirements, but whose contributions merit recognition. The decision on whether to award honorary wings falls to the agency's Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation.

Blue Origin has not commented on whether it nominated its first passengers for FAA Commercial astronaut wings, but if it does, they may have to be "honorary" status.

Blue Origin is producing its own winged pins for its future space travelers, which were given to Bezos and his crew in a ceremony after their landing.

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