24 Jul 2021

Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson not yet astronauts, US says

11:00 am on 24 July 2021

In a move that pours cold water on the dreams of a few billionaire space explorers, the US has tightened its definition of the word "astronaut".

Jeff Bezos celebrating catching popcorn in his mouth during the 20 July 2021, space flight.

Jeff Bezos catches popcorn in his mouth during his trip into space. Photo: AFP / Blue Origin

New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules say astronaut hopefuls must be part of the flight crew and make contributions to space flight safety.

That means Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson may not yet be astronauts in the eyes of the US government.

These are the first changes since the FAA wings programme began in 2004.

The Commercial Astronaut Wings programme updates were announced on Tuesday - the same day that Amazon's Bezos flew aboard a Blue Origin rocket to the edge of space.

To qualify as commercial astronauts, space-goers must travel 80km above the Earth's surface, which both Bezos and Branson accomplished.

But altitude aside, the agency said that would-be astronauts must have also "demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety".

What exactly counts as such is determined by FAA officials.

In a statement, the FAA said that these changes brought the wings scheme more in line with its role to protect public safety during commercial space flights.

On 11 July, Sir Richard flew on-board Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space as a test before allowing customers aboard next year.

Bezos and the three other crew members who flew on Blue Origin's spacecraft may have less claim to the coveted title. Ahead of the launch, Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith said that "there's really nothing for a crew member to do" on the autonomous vehicle.

VAN HORN, TEXAS - JULY 20: Blue Origin’s New Shepard lifts-off from the launch pad carrying Jeff Bezos along with his brother Mark Bezos, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old Wally Funk on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas.

Blue Origin's New Shepard lifts off from the launch pad in Texas earlier this month. Photo: AFP

Those wishing for commercial wings need to be nominated for them as well. An FAA spokesperson told CNN they are not currently reviewing any submissions.

There are two other ways to earn astronaut wings in the US - through the military or Nasa.

The wings spotted on Bezos and Sir Richard following their flights were custom-made pins by their own companies.

However, a glimmer of hope remains for Sir Richard, Bezos and any future stargazers hoping to be recognised as astronauts.

Sir Richard Branson speaks after he flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the "experience of a lifetime" -- and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism at Spaceport America, New Mexico on July 11, 2021.

Sir Richard Branson speaks after he flew into space, at Spaceport America, New Mexico earlier this month. Photo: AFP

The new order notes that honorary awards can be given based on merit - at the discretion of the FAA's associate administrator.

Astronaut wings were first awarded to astronauts Alan Shepard Jr and Virgil Grissom in the early 1960s for their participation in the Mercury Seven programme.

Teen traveller not an Amazon customer

The Dutch teenager who became the world's youngest space traveller this week surprised Bezos on the flight by telling him he had never ordered anything on Amazon.com.

Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old physics student, accompanied Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos and 82-year-old female aviator Wally Funk - the oldest person to go to space - on a 10-minute trip beyond Earth's atmosphere.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew (L-R) Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk, and Mark Bezos pose for a picture near the booster after flying into space in the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas.

Blue Origin's New Shepard crew, from left, Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk and Mark Bezos are pictured in Van Horn, Texas, after their space mission. Photo: AFP

Bezos funded exploration company Blue Origin by selling billions of dollars' worth of stock in his online delivery business Amazon.

"I told Jeff, like, I've actually never bought something from Amazon," Daemen told Reuters. "And he was like, 'oh, wow, it's a long time ago I heard someone say that'."

Daemen, who was picked after another candidate bidding $US28 million ($NZ39m) for the ride cancelled at the last minute, found out he would be joining the flight while on a family holiday in Italy.

"They called and said: 'Are you still interested?' and we were like 'Yes! Yes! Yes!'"

Daemen had dreamt of space travel since he was a child, followed every development by space exploration companies like Blue Origin and got his pilot's licence at a young age.

"We didn't pay even close to $28 million, but they chose me because I was the youngest and I was also a pilot and I also knew quite a lot about it already."

The crew received two days of safety training, but nothing very hard, said Daemen, who can be seen in a video of the trip tossing ping-pong balls in weightlessness with Bezos.

"That was super cool. It's so weird to be weightless. It was easier than I had expected. It was kind of like being in water."

Asked what it was like travelling in a rocket ship with a billionaire, he answered with a wide smile: "They were super fun and all down to earth, as funny as that may sound."

- BBC / Reuters

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