WASHINGTON, D.C. — Will the customers who fly on the suborbital spaceships operated by British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin get astronaut wings? That’s not in the cards, because those wings are typically reserved for flight crews. But at least they’ll get a lapel pin to mark their achievement.
The pin, created by the Association of Space Explorers, made its debut today on the lapel of Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic. She was pinned here at the International Astronautical Congress by former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, the association’s president.
Moses already has her commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration, by virtue of her trip beyond the 50-mile mark in February as a crew member aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocket plane. But she’s glad to have the pin as well.
“It’s wonderful to be presented with this new pin,” Moses said in a news release. “It’s a real honor to be recognized by an association which counts so many pioneers of space exploration among its members. I’m looking forward to working with them to continue to inspire and educate people around the advantages of seeing the world’s problems from the perspective of space.”
The Association of Space Explorers was founded in 1985, but until now it provided recognition (and a pin) only to spacefliers who achieved orbit. The pin for suborbital space travelers, created as a result of discussions with Virgin Galactic, has a slightly different design.
Going forward, the suborbital pin will be awarded to customers and crew members who rise above 50 miles in altitude — whether it’s on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo craft, Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship or other vehicles yet to be developed.
“We look forward to this new demographic of spacefliers adding to our own voices in promoting the benefits of human space exploration, greater stewardship of our home planet, and inspiring the next generation,” Lopez-Alegria said.
Many more pins could be given out next year if Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin stick to their current schedules.
Clare Pelly, head of astronaut relations at Virgin Galactic, said VSS Unity and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane are due to make the move from its testing grounds at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to Spaceport America in New Mexico by the end of the year. That should set the stage for commercial flights to begin next year, with Branson getting on the first flight.
More than 600 “Future Astronauts” have paid as much as $250,000 each to reserve a ride. One of those future fliers is Dan Durda, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute who plans to fly alongside an experiment focusing on how grains of asteroid-like material stick together in zero gravity.
“There’s an entire range of researchers, biological sciences and physical sciences, who are just champing at the bit for this relatively cheap and frequent access to the space environment,” said Durda, who has been working with Virgin Galactic as well as Blue Origin. “I’m raring to go.”
Blue Origin hasn’t yet started taking reservations, but each uncrewed test flight brings the day closer when New Shepard will start flying people. Greg “Ray J” Johnson, a former NASA astronaut who now heads the New Shepard program, said there’ll be one more uncrewed test before the end of the year. He acknowledged that his team has been “tapping the brakes” to make absolutely sure the spacecraft is safe for crewed flights next year.
Johnson said Blue Origin would make sure there’s room aboard New Shepard for “poets and philosophers, and artists also.” He also promised that the adventure would continue even after the flight is finished.
“We plan to engage with our Blue astronauts after the flight, to keep them in the club,” Johnson said.
Pelly agreed with that strategy: “Probably the thing we hear the most frequently from our Future Astronauts is, ‘I’m having so much fun, I don’t want it to be over.’ “