The US government is making it official – Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and William Shatner have earned the title of “astronaut” after their flights to the edge of space.
The Federal Aviation Administration will also award Commercial Space Astronaut Wings to 12 other people who have flown at least 50 miles above Earth on a FAA-licensed commercial spacecraft, including the crew of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission.
Astronaut wings don’t have any significance beyond their symbolic value, but they are quickly becoming the extraterrestrial equivalent of a verified blue checkmark on Twitter as private companies race to sell trips to space.
The FAA will award wings to eight people who flew on Blue Origin’s New Shepherd spacecraft, three who flew on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and to the four members of the SpaceX crew who spent three days in space in September, CNN has learned.
But the space tourism industry shouldn’t get used to this generous allocation of wings from the federal government. In a twist, the FAA has decided to end the entire Commercial Space Astronaut Wings program on January 1. After that, the FAA will simply list the names of everyone who flies above the 50-mile threshold, the US-recognized boundary of space, on a website.
“The U.S. commercial human spaceflight industry has come a long way from conducting test flights to launching paying customers into space,” FAA Associate Administrator Wayne Monteith told CNN. “The Astronaut Wings program, created in 2004, served its original purpose to bring additional attention to this exciting endeavor.”
Astronaut wings were first awarded in the early 1960s to the Mercury 7 astronauts by the US military. It became a rite of passage for all NASA astronauts, from the Apollo missions through today. The FAA created the Commercial Astronaut Wings Program in 2004 after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne became the first private spacecraft to reach space.
Before shutting the program down, the FAA will award honorary wings to the two Scaled Composite test pilots involved in the 2014 crash of Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. Michael Alsbury was killed in the crash, while Peter Siebold was injured but survived.