The FAA Changed Its Definition of ‘Astronaut’ on the Same Day Jeff Bezos Went to Space

The FAA Changed Its Definition of ‘Astronaut’ on the Same Day Jeff Bezos Went to Space
Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Jeff Bezos is a lot of things. A tax-dodging megalomaniac. A Dr. Evil lookalike. A weirdly horny cowboy hat enthusiast. The one thing he isn’t — at least as far as the Federal Aviation Administration is concerned — is an astronaut.

That’s according to a set of new guidelines that the federal agency issued on July 20, the same day Amazon’s ex-CEO briefly flew a dick-shaped space shuttle into the edge of space. Specifically, the updates concern the FAA’s Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program, and the criteria used to award those commanding, piloting, or working on privately funded spacecraft with the coveted astronaut wings badge. And Bezos, as it turns out, just doesn’t make the cut.

First, aside from flying in a craft that meets the FAA’s basic standards, the guidelines state that candidates need to fly more than 80 km above the Earth’s surface in order to qualify. Bezos actually met that bar during his flight — in fact, he went a full 100 km above sea level. The main issue is that he didn’t really do much during that flight. In the past, we’ve seen these wings awarded to pilots, like those leading the 2004 SpaceShipOne flight and the SpaceShipTwo in 2018. A year after that, the first woman (and non-pilot) would be awarded her wings when the FAA gave a pair to Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor.

All of these figures actually did something on board; or as the FAA’s new guidance puts it, they “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” This is a new requirement for folks looking to get this badge of honour, and one that Bezos and his crew fall short of.

Because Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft was fully autonomous, there was nobody responsible for actively piloting the thing, nor anyone really performing any duties that were key to the crew’s “public safety.” Not only that, but the others that joined Bezos on New Shepard don’t even qualify as being members of the spacecraft’s “crew,” since the FAA defines that as employees or contractor’s associated with a company involved in the spacecraft’s launch.

This might be why Blue Origin already has its own winged pins ready to go for anyone taking a jaunt in its spacecraft. Bezos was among the first to be awarded these pins following New Shepard’s 10-minute flight to the edge of space, to the sound of thunderous applause (and a few “oooh’s” and “aaaah’s”) from all involved. Hey, at least this means Wally Funk finally got something.