On July 20, 14 people came together off the planet at the same time. But only 10 were astronauts. Seven from the International Space Station (three from NASA, two from the Russian Roscosmos agency, one from the European Space Agency and one from Japan’s JAXA) and three from the Chinese space station Tiangong. Fleetingly, for 200 seconds, the four crew of the ship New Shepard, they enjoyed the low off-planet gravity. But that didn’t make billionaire Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, aviator Wally Funk and young Oliver Daemen astronauts. Officially they are not recognized that status. So what are they?
The symbolic way to access the astronauts’ club is to distinguish these new astronauts with a winged badge. And that’s what Jeff Bezos did as soon as he got out of his capsule. In a ceremony before the press, NASA astronaut Jeff Ashby decorated the tycoon and his companions with this badge (in the image). But it had a catch: the badge was one invented by the Blue Origin company and Ashby is now an employee of Bezos. The same day they crossed the sky, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had toughened the requirements to earn the astronaut wings by civil means. The other two ways to earn that winged insignia are NASA and the Army, which honor their personnel upon return from space.
“There should be a term that names people who only make those flights up and down: it is as if we call the one who goes up to Navacerrada a mountaineer”
Pedro Duque, ESA astronaut
To deserve the wings of the FAA, it is not enough to exceed 80 kilometers in height (Bezos reached 106), it is necessary to have carried out “activities during the flight that were essential for public safety or contributed to the safety of manned space flights ”. But Bezos didn’t do anything at all on the flight. The FAA has awarded these wings to four pilots from Richard Branson’s space company, Virgin Galactic, and also to his astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, for her work improving the safety of those flights in 2018 and 2019. Even Branson himself could sneak in by that definition, as he flew the July 11 on his ship as a customer experience evaluator, accompanied by Moses.
But Bezos and the travelers from his ship took their seats and looked out the window, nothing more. Because the device is operated entirely by computer. “This is an autonomous vehicle. There’s really nothing a crew member can do, ”Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said that day. Bezos does not comply with the definition of astronaut from the Royal Academy: “Person who manned a spacecraft or who is trained for this job.” There’s only one way to get those wings: to have them honorably awarded by the FAA as a reward for your actions for a reason. That could allow, for example, the pioneer Wally Funk to receive hers: she passed the Mercury 13 program in 1961 to be one of the first astronauts and has been aspiring to that position for six decades. For now, only Virgin Galactic recognizes that it has requested those wings from the FAA for its crew.
The Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque, recently returned to civilian life after leaving the Ministry of Science, believes that it is a controversial issue because the word “astronaut” has always been very reserved. In fact, the pioneering astronauts, who were also military pilots, fought with NASA to retain more control of the spacecraft in the face of automation and thus keep people out of space. normal, as Harvard University space historian Matthew Hersch explains on Space.com: “Having ordinary people flying into space was completely unthinkable, and the astronauts were horrified at the idea that future space vehicles could be so completely automated that the pilot would have nothing to do.”
“I don’t think the word has any mystique; as long as it is not a regulated profession, it could be used freely ”, assures the former Minister of Science. “But there should be a term that refers to people who only make those flights up and down,” he adds, “because that trip does not make them anything particular: it is as if we call the one who goes up to the Navacerrada track a mountaineer. ”. Duque, on leave of absence from the European Space Agency (ESA), is still passing the annual medical exams and is fit to return to a space mission as soon as necessary. “I have the NASA insignia: they give you a metallic colored pin when you enter the astronaut corps and when you make your first orbital flight they give you a gold-plated one. But ESA has nothing formalized ”, explains the Spanish astronaut.
Legally, Bezos and the others are neither crew nor passengers, but participants in a dangerous experiment
Duque’s guild constituted the Association of Space Explorers in which for many years there has been an important debate about what to do with the new suborbital space tourists, who neither work, nor fulfill missions and do not even get to go around the Earth, as in the Branson and Bezos flights: they cross a couple of minutes the atmosphere and that’s it. “We in the association admit only people who have made an orbit around the Earth,” says Duque. And he adds: “So we have created two astronaut-like badges, with two versions: the one for those who have reached space and the one for those who have taken an orbit, to which a circle is added” (in the image).
Legally, Bezos and the others are neither crew nor passengers, but rather are participants in a space flight, that is, people who are willing to take part in a dangerous experiment. Therefore, they must sign an informed consent. In addition, there is another not so symbolic debate: what is traveling to space. Bezos’s company rocket is more powerful and manages to overcome the Kármán line, located at 100 kilometers high, which almost all organisms consider the space frontier. But Branson’s ship is not that powerful and only flies above 80 kilometers, the space frontier according to the US However, the former Minister of Science believes that all this will develop like aviation: “It starts with very short distances and a lot of money, and then it will be normalized just like in airplanes, and we will soon forget about this controversy ”. ESA will recruit an astronaut with a disability this year for the first time in history: times are already changing.