From September 15 to 19, Earth’s first-ever all-civilian team orbited around our planet thanks to SpaceX and their Inspiration4 mission. The Crew Dragon marks the furthest point reached so far in space tourism, with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin coming in second at 66 miles above the surface — just enough to cross the international edge of space at 62 miles — and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in third at 50 miles. However, even this achievement is unlikely to grant the Inspiration4 team the title of “astronauts.”
A word used to denote anyone who had exited Earth’s atmosphere was recently changed to become a whole lot more strict. Specifically, on the day of Bezos’ trip with Blue Origin, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) redefined the meaning of the word “astronaut” to exclude space tourists such as Bezos himself. There are now three requirements to be counted as an astronaut: One must have flight crew qualification and training, travel beyond the 50-mile line, and “demonstrate activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” The third of these is what has denied most space tourists their astronaut title so far, though according to the FAA, the Inspiration4 team doesn’t even meet the first requirement.
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When asked about the four civilians traveling aboard the Crew Dragon, the FAA responded that these are spaceflight participants, not crew. To be a part of the crew means to be in employment or contract and, in this position, to actively contribute to the operations. By this definition, CEOs Bezos and Branson could be considered part of the crew, as they run the companies that launch the vehicles in the first place. The Inspiration4 civilians, on the other hand, fall short here.
Division On The Decision
Certified astronauts are divided on the decision made by the FAA. Some support it, as they feel that space tourists calling themselves astronauts discredits their skillset and the contributions they’ve made. Others, however, see the decision as risky, saying that changing definitions will not only have an impact on future astronauts but could also retroactively impact those who already gained the title. They argue that all missions are automated to a large degree, with pilots largely having to observe, and that traditional crews also include specialists who don’t contribute to the vehicle’s operation itself. Whether these specialists were on board to conduct experiments or attend to cargo, they also received the astronaut title in the past.
For the Inspiration4 team and the space tourists before them, being denied the title of astronaut is likely a small price to pay for the chance to experience microgravity and see the Earth from space. But for those whose professions are directly tied to the title, the FAA’s decision may end up being a lot more impactful.