The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
NS-19
The crew capsule of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle descends during the NS-19 mission December 11. (credit: Blue Origin)

Private human spaceflight become more regular, but not routine


Bookmark and Share

In the end, the FAA decided to declare victory and go home.

On Friday, the FAA announced that it would retire its Commercial Astronaut Wings program at the end of this year. The program started in 2004 but, after awarding the first wings to SpaceShipOne pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie that year, it was dormant until 2019, when five SpaceShipTwo crew members got wings for two suborbital flights of that vehicle.

“The Astronaut Wings program, created in 2004, served its original purpose to bring additional attention to this exciting endeavor,” said Monteith. “Now it’s time to offer recognition to a larger group of adventurers daring to go to space.”

The program was, arguably, a victim of the long-overdue success of the private human spaceflight industry. In July, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo made its first flight with six people on board, including company founder Richard Branson. Nine days later, Blue Origin’s New Shepard made its first crewed flight with four people on board, including company founder Jeff Bezos. Two more crewed New Shepard flights followed, including one Saturday with a full complement of six people. And, in the midst of that, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon flew its first private orbital human spaceflight mission, with the four-person Inspiration4 crew spending three days in orbit.

The program was arguably never meant to give wings to everyone who flew in space, and just after the first crewed New Shepard flight, the FAA revised the terms of the program (see “Will suborbital space tourism take a suborbital trajectory?”, The Space Review, July 26, 2021). No longer would the wings go to someone on a commercial, FAA-licensed flight to an altitude of at least 80 kilometers: that person also had to be “flight crew who demonstrate activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety,” the FAA stated.

That created some uncomfortable questions. Neither Branson nor Bezos appeared to be directly involved in public safety or human spaceflight safety, so both would be out. But so would, by extension, Wally Funk, the “Mercury 13” female astronaut candidate from 60 years ago who flew on the same flight as Bezos, would also be ruled out. A government agency once again denying astronaut credentials to her? It doesn’t take much to imagine the furor that would have created.

The solution at the time seems to be to take advantage of the “honorary” astronaut wings provision in the new regulations, which allowed the FAA to give such wings to those people who otherwise don’t meet the criteria. Instead, the FAA said last week that every non-government individual who flew to space on FAA-licensed vehicles in 2021 would get astronaut wings—and no one else thereafter.

After years—decades, really—of waiting for it to arrive, three companies flew private human missions from the edge of space to altitudes above the space station in 2021.

“The US commercial human spaceflight industry has come a long way from conducting test flights to launching paying customers into space,” Wayne Monteith, the FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said in a statement. “The Astronaut Wings program, created in 2004, served its original purpose to bring additional attention to this exciting endeavor. Now it’s time to offer recognition to a larger group of adventurers daring to go to space.”

Instead of wings, the FAA will simply keep a list on its website of all the people who fly to space on FAA-licensed vehicles. No shiny pair of wings, but instead an entry in a list, with an asterisk if they’ve received wings and a plus sign if they’ve flown more than once.

It’s a small sign of a growing maturation of the commercial human spaceflight industry. After years—decades, really—of waiting for it to arrive, with just the false dawn of the Ansari X Prize 17 years ago and occasional seats on Soyuz taxi flights to the ISS, three companies flew private human missions from the edge of space to altitudes above the space station in 2021. (The Russians also returned to space tourism, with a dedicated Soyuz mission carrying a Russian cosmonaut and two Japanese astronauts currently docked to the ISS, in the middle of an 11-day stay.)

On one hand, flights seem more routine. The latest New Shepard flight over the weekend might have been the first to carry six people—four paying customers along with TV host Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of Alan Shepard—but the flight looked like the past two crewed flights, and many other payload-only flights, from liftoff to the separate landings of the booster under rocket power and the capsule under parachutes. Likewise, SpaceX has gotten into a rhythm with its Crew Dragon missions, be they for NASA or commercial customers.

More flights are scheduled for 2022. Blue Origin said after the flight it’s planning “several” New Shepard missions, both crewed and payload-only ones, but was not more specific. SpaceX, in addition to its two NASA commercial crew missions in 2022, is flying the Ax-1 private astronaut mission to the ISS for Axiom Space. On Monday, NASA announced it selected Axiom to make a second private astronaut mission to the ISS between late 2022 and spring 2023; that, too, will use a Crew Dragon.

But on the other hand, the industry is still tenuous. Virgin Galactic may have won the race to send its founder to space, but it hasn’t flown SpaceShipTwo since that mission in July. A combination of technical issues and a planned long-duration maintenance period led the company to postpone a flight for the Italian Air Force that had been scheduled for the fall, and SpaceShipTwo will not fly again until more than a year after Branson’s flight.

It’s an industry in transition, hopefully in a positive way. But there no guarantees of success.

Still, Virgin Galactic has managed to sell 100 additional tickets since it restarted sales after the July flight, at a revised, higher price of $450,000 each. Company executives, in an earnings call in November, talked up the prospects of future growth, including building a line of “Delta Class” next-generation suborbital spaceplanes that would require a new factory.

And, while SpaceX has hit its stride with Crew Dragon, Boeing is still struggling with the CST-100 Starliner, its second uncrewed test flight now rescheduled for no earlier than May 2022. A crewed test flight will follow, possibly by the end of next year. However, those delays led NASA to recently announce it intended to add three flights to SpaceX’s existing contract because SpaceX would reach its sixth and final flight in early 2023, with continued uncertainty about when Boeing will be certified to fly NASA astronauts.

It’s an industry in transition, hopefully in a positive way. But there no guarantees of success. Companies can run into financial problems, or simply decide human spaceflight isn’t a good business to be in versus spending resources on other space activities. And, despite Crew Dragon and New Shepard making such flights look routine, they are not: they are still risky, with the threat of a single accident bringing the industry to a halt.

As a reminder of that, one need only look at the FAA’s announcement Friday that it was shuttering its astronaut wings program. In addition to the now 28 wings awarded to people flying SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo, New Shepard, and Crew Dragon, the FAA announced it was awarding two honorary astronaut wings, using that provision from the revised regulations in July. They will go to Peter Siebold and the late Michael Alsbury, the pilot and co-pilot, respectively, of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, destroyed in a test flight accident in October 2014. Alsbury was killed and Siebold seriously injured in the accident. A stark reminder, indeed.


Note: we are using a new commenting system, which may require you to create a new account.

Home