Billionaire Space Race – What Makes an Astronaut

With billionaire businessmen Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos starting their companies in the era of space tourism we have seen the argument arise, what qualifies an astronaut to claim their an astronaut? Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are claiming to make you an astronaut if you ride with them to space, but does that make it so. Just before Virgin Galactic made their first trip with Richard Branson onboard their competition, Blue Origin put out a graphic on social media which Basically claims they will reach space, where Virgin would not.

Graphic by: Blue Origin

This is based on the fact that they break the Karman line. This line is the internationally recognized line which separates the boundary between Earth and space which stands at one-hundred kilometers, fifty-four nautical miles, or sixty-two miles above the mean sea level of Earth. Virgin Galactic is going based of the United States military’s definition for space, fifty miles above the mean sea level of Earth. So you can see things aren’t exactly clear, and when you’re considering your ticket purchase between the companies perhaps becoming an astronaut matters to you.

So let us look further into the definition of “astronaut”. This is where things get more confusing, the FAA, NASA, and the U.S. military all have separate definitions of what it means to be an astronaut. The catch? none of their definitions fit perfectly with how Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic are defining their astronauts. So, in order to be awarded commercial astronaut wings you must be an employee of the company performing the launch, which is certified by the FAA, and they must be performing some kind of job for the company during the mission. Branson, as a crew member had the job to evaluate the astronaut experience during the mission, thus he will be awarded his commercial astronaut wings via the U.S. government. Bezos however flew on an autonomous vehicle so no personal onboard needed to act as a member of the flight crew. By this standard he does not receive his wings.

At this point fewer than six-hundred humans have flown to space in history, most of them government employees paid to explore. With these new opportunities opening up more people will be able to claim astronaut status. Soon the term astronaut may be a common status to claim amongst citizens of the world, and make it not such a special moniker. Aviator is a term that saw a similar path over the course of aeronautical history. Today “aviator” is reserved for a select group of people who are performing risky flights, and pushing the bounds of what is possible.