Citing the rise of space tourism, the Federal Aviation Administration has decided to end its Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program, the regulator announced in a press release last Friday. Launched in 2004, the program was intended to bring attention to commercial space flight and to certify the pilots of commercial spacecraft. The FAA says this is no longer necessary and that individuals who reach space will, instead of getting astronaut wings, get recognition on its website.
The FAA had tweaked the program earlier this year, saying commercial astronaut wings will only be handed out to individuals who “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” Space tourists are largely passive participants during their flights (Blue Origin and SpaceX feature fully autonomous spacecraft, while Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane requires pilots), and time-in-space is measured in minutes, so awarding them with special astronaut pins seemed a bit much.
That adjustment had meant that Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, and Star Trek actor William Shatner, among others, would not get their astronaut wings despite flying to altitudes in excess of 60 miles (100 kilometers), the internationally recognized boundary of space. The regulator is now backtracking on this—or at least for space flights that happened this year—saying it will award commercial astronaut wings to anyone who participated in an FAA-licensed space launch in 2021. This will include the six crewmembers of the Blue Origin launch from this past Saturday, as well as Bezos, Shatner, Branson, and others.
In addition to the 15 individuals who traveled to space this year, the FAA will be handing out honorary awards of commercial astronaut wings to Peter Siebold and the late Michael Alsbury, both of whom test piloted Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise. Alsbury was killed during the tragic October 2014 test flight, while Siebold was seriously injured.
But that’s it—no more commercial astronaut wings for anyone starting in 2022, as the program, having fulfilled its purpose, will officially be over, the FAA said.
That the FAA has ended this program makes complete sense, especially given where the space tourism industry appears to be headed. The FAA shouldn’t be handing out special awards and certificates to every schmuck who gets strapped to a rocket. That should now be up to the companies themselves, which is what appears to be happening.