Why Inspiration4 participants are not real astronauts

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What’s in a name? It turns out a lot, especially when it comes to being an astronaut.

The crew of Inspiration4, SpaceX’s four-person all-civilian passenger mission that launched into low-earth orbit Wednesday night, may seem like “astronauts” to the guy down the street. After all, Merriam-Webster defines “astronaut” as “a person who travels beyond Earth’s atmosphere”, which would cover the team.

But the US Federal Aviation Administration, which awards commercial space astronaut wings, has a much stricter definition of its awards.

As the new space race kicks off, this is an issue that may continue to come to the fore. During the space race of the 1960s, flights were limited and reserved for elite candidates who had “the right things.” But companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin now want to bring more people on the ride – some of whom won’t need to handle any of the spacecraft’s operations.

With this expansion, the question arises as to who qualifies for the FAA astronaut wings.

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Inspiration4’s Crew Dragon capsule is ready to take off.Anadolu Agency / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Astronaut Wings: Will Inspiration4 Receive Them?

In response to a Reverse Whether the team will count as astronauts, the FAA responded that “SpaceX has designated the four people traveling on Inspiration4 as spaceflight participants, not as crew.”

It may sound like the same thing, but the FAA has a clear definition of who is on the crew:

“Any employee or independent contractor of a licensee, assignee or permit holder, or a contractor or subcontractor of a licensee, assignee or ” a license holder, who performs activities within the framework of this employment or this contract directly related to the launching, reentrying or other operation of or in a launcher or a reentry vehicle which transports human beings. A crew consists of the flight crew and any remote operator.

A participant in a space flight, on the other hand, is (in bold for emphasis):

“An individual, who is not the crew, carried on board a launcher or re-entry vehicle.

SpaceX classified the four passengers under the latter definition. To understand why this is important, we’ll need to take a look at the most recent eligibility requirements for receiving Astronaut Wings (bold for emphasis):

Be eligible for FAA Commercial Space Astronaut Wings, commercial launch crew members must meet the following criteria: a. Meet flight crew qualification and training requirements under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 460. b. Demonstrated flight beyond 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth as a flight crew on a launch or re-entry vehicle authorized or authorized by the FAA / AST. vs. Activities demonstrated during flight that were essential to public safety or contributed to the safety of human spaceflight.

Since the passengers are all participants in space flights, they not qualify according to this criterion.

The administration also offers honorary Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Award, awarded to “persons whose contribution to commercial human spaceflight deserves special recognition.”

The Associate Administrator of Commercial Space Transportation has the discretion to award these awards to “individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary contribution or service of benefit to the commercial human space flight industry”.

DC- Lt. Col. John Glenn received the Navy “Astronaut Wings” (on the flap of his left chest pocket) and the Marine Corps “Astronaut Badge” (on his right chest) in March 1962.Bettmann / Bettmann / Getty Images

Astronaut wings: why is it important?

Margaret Weitekamp, ​​curator and chair of the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, explained to Reverse in July 2021 that astronaut wings mattered a lot to US Air Force pilots. Those who have flown high enough to receive this honor could use it to boost their careers.

“Astronaut wings in military service make a difference in a service record, and that then adds up to a resume that would make him eligible for new flight assignments, promotions, career progression, that distinction comes with you, ”she said at the time. “On the civilian side at NASA, the allocation of astronaut wings was nice but not necessary.”

In 2004, the FAA awarded the first commercial space astronaut wings to a private pilot, Mike Melvill. He flew Virgin Galactic SpaceShipOne greater than 62 miles, the internationally recognized limit of space and well beyond the 50 mile limit of the FAA.

Blue Origin’s all-civilian team have lined up.Joe Raedle / Getty

But the FAA introduced its most recent criteria on July 22, 2021, the same day Blue Origin hosted its first all-civilian mission to suborbital space. The new definition meant that the four-person crew was not qualified for the wings, as it now stipulated that members had to demonstrate “activities during flight that were essential to public safety or contributed to the safety of spaceflight. inhabited “.

But as Weitekamp said, the wings are ultimately “good but not necessary”. Inspiration4 will still have spent three days in Earth’s orbit, and a reward or no reward will not change that fact.

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