There's a fair amount fuss and foofraw in the media and online about the Inspiration 4 crew, just back from a three-day mission in Earth orbit: do they qualify as "astronauts," or not?
"Astronaut" is not like "Able Seaman" or getting certification as an aircraft pilot. You need to be be serving as a crewperson on a spacecraft that crosses into space. That's 50 miles for the U.S. and 62 miles (100 kilometers, the von Kármán line) for everyone else. That's it -- but the catch is that "crewperson" designation. If you were defined as a "spaceflight participant" in the FAA paperwork, you don't get astronaut wings. You might get honorary wings -- at the FAA administrator's discretion.
Some of the coverage has been unduly snarky. The crew is about perfectly lined up to trigger everyone: a cheeky billionaire (and amateur jet pilot), a pale and slightly chubby IT guy/space geek, a crewcut female African-American CAP pilot*/analog astronaut/Ph.D. and STEM popularizer, and a bubbly 20-something physician's assistant who knew very little about space travel before she was tapped for the mission. If you were looking for something to be irked by, at least one of them has probably got it.
Some media reports (looking at you, CNN) have characterized the mission as a "joyride." Never mind that no one has done this before (or that Dr. Proctor made it to the final set of cuts in the NASA astronaut selection process); never mind that taking four people, giving them six months of training and sending them off to orbit is positively ground-breaking. If you want to paint the mission as "rich white guy buys way to orbit," you can. (You do have to ignore the fundraising aspects, which put more than the mission cost into the coffers of St. Jude Children's Hospital. I guess that's easy for the sniffily inclined.)
But once he and his fellow spaceflight participants have shown it can be done, there's nothing keeping Purdue or MIT -- or General Atomics -- from chartering a Dragon and sending up three or four researchers with a lab-ful of experiments to keep them busy. Will they be astronauts? I don't know.
I do know that wings or not, official or not, I'll keep calling the Inspiration 4 crew astronauts. They have indeed sailed the starry sky -- and come back safe and sound to tell their tale. Wings aren't any use in vacuum anyway.
* I have said this elsewhere and I will say it here: back when I knew people in Civil Air Patrol, they tended to get handed pretty tired airplanes and were expected to do serious SAR work and the like with them. It tickles me to see a CAP aviator in the pilot's seat of something as state-of-the-art as a Dragon, no matter how automated it is. About darned time. And on the topic, FWIW, male pilots outnumber women pilots about eleven to one; for the Shuttle, the ratio was roughly forty to one. A woman who flies spacecraft is a rara avis indeed.
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