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The Blue Origin New Shepard takes flight. Photo: Blue Origin

The FAA updated its requirements for who qualifies for commercial astronaut wings.

Why it matters: As more people fly to space in the coming years with companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, having some clarity about who counts as a commercial astronaut could help customers weigh the risks versus rewards of flying.

Catch up quick: Previously, to qualify for FAA commercial astronaut wings, a person needed to count as a crewmember — not a passenger or participant — on an FAA-licensed flight that took them at least 50 miles above the Earth. (NASA has a different definition of who qualifies as one of the agency's astronauts.)

  • The updated rules still include those requirements, but the FAA has also added that to qualify for wings, an applicant also needs to demonstrate "activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety," according to the new order.
  • The FAA also added the option of qualifying for honorary wings for "individuals whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition," but may not meet the other requirements.

What to watch: It's not clear exactly who will qualify for FAA commercial astronaut wings among the people who flew on suborbital flights with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson in the past two weeks.

  • Both companies did award their own wings to those who flew with them to memorialize their flights.

Yes, but: The most basic definition of "astronaut" is really just anyone who flies to space.

  • "The FAA does not decide who is an astronaut. Nor does the U.S. government," says space historian Robert Pearlman. "FAA Commercial Astronaut wings are just that, wings for commercial astronauts. You can be an astronaut and not be a commercial astronaut."

Go deeper... New wrinkle for space tourism: Deciding who counts as an astronaut

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Aug 31, 2021 - Science

A mission to space like no other

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The launch next month of the first all-civilian mission to orbit is an ambitious test for a burgeoning space industry's futuristic dream of sending many more ordinary people to space in the next few years.

Why it matters: Companies and nations envision millions of people living and working in space without having to become professional, government-backed astronauts. Those hopes are riding on SpaceX's next crewed mission, called Inspiration4.

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Sep 16, 2021 - Science

All-civilian Inspiration4 launches on 3-day mission in orbit

A screenshot of the rocket launching. Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX's all-civilian Inspiration4 mission made history Wednesday night when it launched into orbit.

Why it matters: It's the first time a crew of amateurs has launched to orbit without a professional astronaut onboard. The mission also signals the start of a new era in space — one defined by an industry pushing to launch many more private people to orbit in the coming years.

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Sep 14, 2021 - Science

Wrestling with the risks of private missions to space

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The all-civilian Inspiration4 crew, launching to orbit this week, will force the space industry to contend with just how much risk ordinary people are willing to take on in order to build humanity's future in space.

Why it matters: The private space industry's goal of building an economy in space hinges on sending more people to orbit in the near future. But spaceflight is still an incredibly risky endeavor and it will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.