Bezos and Branson may not officially be astronauts after last-minute rule change

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Bezos - Getty
Bezos - Getty

They spent billions of dollars and two decades in a quest to get to space.

But it was back to Earth with a bump for Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson as it turned out they may not officially qualify to become astronauts.

On the very day that Mr Bezos blasted off the US government quietly tightened its rules, meaning the billionaires could miss out on the rare award of commercial astronaut wings.

Mr Bezos, 57, the richest man on Earth, started his Blue Origin space company in 2000, and has been spending up to $1 billion a year to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

Sir Richard's space odyssey with Virgin Galactic began back in 2004.

Previously, under the US Federal Aviation Administration's Commercial Astronaut Wings Program, almost the sole requirement was to travel above an altitude of 50 miles.

On July 11, Sir Richard soared to 53 miles on his rocket plane.

plane - VIRGIN GALACTIC
plane - VIRGIN GALACTIC

Nine days later Mr Bezos blasted his way up to 66 miles on his New Shepard rocket.

But while Mr Bezos was somewhere way above the Texas desert the FAA was busy revising its rules.

It inserted a new clause that would-be astronauts must also perform "activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety."

An FAA spokeswoman said it had decided to "change the focus" of the rules to "align more directly to the FAA’s role to protect public safety during commercial space operations."

There was no clarification from the FAA on whether the timing of the change was specifically related to Mr Bezos's flight.

The Amazon founder's 10-minute trip to space was fully automated.

He and three others - his brother Mark, 18-year-old Dutch physics student Oliver Daemen, and veteran aviator Wally Funk, 82 - were passengers.

capsule - Blue Origin
capsule - Blue Origin

To qualify for commercial astronaut wings, flyers also have to be an employee of the space company, which further ruled out all of them apart from Mr Bezos himself.

It also appeared to mean that future paying customers of any space tourism company would not receive astronaut wings from the FAA.

In Sir Richard's case the implications of the rule change were far less clear cut.

He flew before the change was made and the FAA order instituting it said the "effective date" was July 20, 2021.

Sir Richard was also designated as a member of the crew, rather than a passenger.

He was a "mission specialist" tasked with "evaluating the Virgin Galactic astronaut experience," which could potentially mean he still qualified.

Before obtaining FAA astronaut wings a person has to be nominated, and a spokeswoman said it currently had no nominations under consideration.

Bezos - Blue Origin
Bezos - Blue Origin

The new rules did allow for "honourary" awards of astronaut wings to people who "demonstrated an extraordinary contribution to the commercial human space flight industry."

An honourary award would be at the discretion of Wayne Monteith, the FAA's Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation.

For decades astronaut wings were only awarded by the US military and Nasa.

The FAA began bestowing commercial astronaut wings in 2004 when Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne reached space.

All such awards so far have been to pilots, apart from in 2019 when wings were received by Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor, who went up as a "test passenger."

Branson - Virgin Galactic
Branson - Virgin Galactic

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have each made their own astronaut pins, which were attached to the flight suits of Mr Bezos and Sir Richard, by former astronauts, after they landed.

Earlier this year the Association of Space Explorers announced its own pin that will be given to anyone who goes to space, including tourists.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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