FAA: No More Astronaut Wings For Future Commercial Space Tourists

"The Federal Aviation Administration said on Friday that it was ending a program that awarded small gold pins called 'Commercial Space Astronaut Wings' to certain people who flew to space on private spacecraft," reports the New York Times. (Alternate URL here.) But before the program officially retires in January, all who applied for the gold wings after flying to space this year will still receive them, the agency said. That means Mr. Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon who rode a rocket with his space company, Blue Origin, to the edge of space in July, will be considered a commercial astronaut. So will Richard Branson, the founder of the space tourism firm Virgin Galactic who flew his own company's rocket plane to space in the same month. William Shatner, the Star Trek star who flew with Blue Origin to the edge of space in October, will also receive astronaut wings to go with his Starfleet paraphernalia. Twelve other people were also added to the federal agency's list of wing recipients on Friday [bringing the list up to 30 people]. The changes will help the F.A.A. avoid the potentially awkward position of proclaiming that some space tourists are only passengers, not astronauts. The Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program was created by Patti Grace Smith, the first chief of the F.A.A.'s commercial space office, to promote the private development of human spaceflight — a mandate from a 1984 law that aimed to accelerate innovation of space vehicles. The program began handing out pins to qualified individuals in 2004, when Mike Melvill, a test pilot who flew the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne plane, became its first recipient. To qualify for the commercial astronaut wings under the original guidelines, a person had to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles, the marker of space recognized by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, and be a member of the spacecraft's "flight crew..." Although no one will receive the little gold pins after 2021, those who fly above 50 miles on an F.A.A.-licensed rocket will be honored in the agency's online database. But future space tourists should not despair a lack of post-flight flair. Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX have each presented paying and guest passengers with custom-designed wings. Or, as the Associated Press put it, "The FAA said Friday it's clipping its astronaut wings because too many people are now launching into space and it's getting out of the astronaut designation business entirely...." "The U.S. commercial human spaceflight industry has come a long way from conducting test flights to launching paying customers into space," the FAA's associate administrator Wayne Monteith said in a statement. "Now it's time to offer recognition to a larger group of adventurers daring to go to space." Thanks to long-time Slashdot reader schwit1 for submitting the story.

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