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Who gets to be called an astronaut? It’s complicated

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have started his own private spaceflight company, funded the development of new rockets and capsules, and flown to the edge of space, but even that doesn’t make him an astronaut, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

While Bezos’ suborbital spaceflight earlier this week — and fellow billionaire Richard Branson’s trip to the edge of space July 11 — signaled that the space tourism industry could soon be taking off, the FAA recently tightened its rules on who is considered an astronaut.

The restrictions have important implications for the private spaceflight industry, making it harder for Bezos and others to earn commercial astronaut wings.

Three agencies in the United States can designate people as astronauts: NASA, the FAA and the U.S. military. Each has a different definition of who qualifies for the title, but with NASA and the military, the distinction is reserved for only their employees who meet specific criteria.

In a policy order that went into effect July 20, the FAA outlined three main eligibility requirements for commercial astronauts. Commercial launch crew members must be employed by an FAA-certified company performing the launch; they must reach an altitude higher than 50 miles above the surface of the Earth during flight; and they must have demonstrated activities during the mission that were “essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.”

Under these rules, space tourists who pay for suborbital or orbital joyrides are ineligible to receive astronaut wings.

In Branson’s and Bezos’ cases, however, things are a little murkier because what counts as “essential” activities for public safety or human spaceflight safety is up to the FAA’s discretion.

Branson’s launch, aboard his own company Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered Unity space plane, was designated a test flight, which could satisfy the FAA’s requirement that crew members perform tasks that contribute to the safety of human spaceflight.

Branson and his fellow passengers, chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla, government affairs vice president, are all employees of Virgin Galactic, and their flight reached an altitude of around 53 miles, which would satisfy the FAA’s other rules.

Moses already has a pair of commercial astronaut wings, awarded in April 2019, from a previous test flight with Virgin Galactic. She also holds the distinction of being the first woman to fly to the edge of space on a commercial vehicle.

FAA officials will likely have an easier time ruling out Bezos’ eligibility.

Bezos launched aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and capsule July 20 with three other passengers: his brother, Mark, 82-year-old former pilot Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old from the Netherlands.

The New Shepard rocket and capsule are designed to fly autonomously, which means Blue Origin’s passengers don’t perform any essential tasks during the flight. Daemen’s father also paid for his ride to suborbital space, which automatically makes the Dutch teenager ineligible for astronaut status.

It’s possible, though, that an exception may be made for Funk, whose launch with Blue Origin came 60 years after she was denied the opportunity to go to space as a NASA astronaut.

The FAA can award honorary astronaut wings to “individuals whose contribution to commercial human space flight merits special recognition.”

Funk was one of the Mercury 13 women who underwent training in the 1960s to demonstrate that women could qualify for NASA’s astronaut corps. She and the other women were ultimately denied entry because females were not accepted into NASA’s astronaut class until 1978.

As space tourism ramps up, one big draw is the idea that ordinary civilians — albeit wealthy individuals who can foot the hefty price tag of a ticket to space — could call themselves astronauts. Despite the FAA tightening its definition of who qualifies as a commercial astronaut, space historian and author Andrew Chaikin doesn’t think it will dampen enthusiasm for the burgeoning industry.

“I think the motivation for space tourism is that people just want to have that experience,” he said. “I don’t think the wider world pays that much attention to whether or not the FAA awards astronaut wings to one person over another.”

And it may be that as suborbital and orbital spaceflights happen with more regularity, and as access to space significantly expands in the future, the language and labels around such operations could change dramatically, he said.

“The people who flew balloons from the 18th century into the 19th century were called aeronauts, which sounds so archaic to us now,” Chaikin said. “If you go on vacation and get on a balloon ride today, nobody is going to call you an aeronaut.”

In that same way, the word “astronaut,” along with all the responsibilities and significance it connotes, may eventually go out of usage, according to him.

“I like the term space traveler,” Chaikin said. “Anybody who flies in space, whatever their capacity, is a space traveler. In years to come, people might go up to space not for science but just as a requirement to do their job. Maybe it’s a manager of an orbiting hotel. I don’t know that you would call that person an astronaut. But you would call them a space traveler.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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