Whether or not the average person considers Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to be explorers of the cosmos after their respective joyrides into the upper atmosphere, they and their crew members have met the Federal Aviation Administration’s criteria “astronauts.” They’re even giving them a little medals! And they’ll be the last of their kind ever produced.
The administration announced an abrupt end to its Commercial Space Astronaut Wings program today. The 2021 recipients include Bezos and Branson, as well as Star Trek actor William Shatner; since it was created in 2004, the honor has been given to 24 individuals, 15 of whom received their wings this year. Starting January 1, 2022, those who would normally qualify for wings will instead only be recognized on the FAA’s website.
“The Wings program was created […] to recognize pilots and flight crew who furthered the FAA’s mission to promote the development of vehicles designed to carry humans into space,” the FAA wrote. “With three commercial space companies now licensed by the FAA to fly spaceflight participants, and companies conducting operations, [program creator Patti Grace Smith’s] vision is largely fulfilled.”
An ego trip 50 miles up is, arguably, substantively different from spending time on the ISS or landing on the Moon. So while it might gall some to see two guys who already have everything claiming a soon-to-be-extinct bit of space travel memorabilia, keep in mind that it’s one of many similar baubles. Astronauts still can be awarded different, arguably nicer-looking wings from each branch of the military, in three different degrees. NASA also produces non-military pins for astronauts, and a separate pins for civilians who take part in missions. If anything, the refusal to gift knickknacks for scientifically pointless exercises in polluting the environment suggests humankind’s esteem for real space travel remains untarnished.