Bezos: No Asterisks Next to the Names of Blue Origin’s Astronauts

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

Two days before Virgin Galactic completed the ninth powered flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital program, rocket billionaire and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos threw some shade at billionaire Richard Branson’s rival suborbital space tourism venture. SpaceNews reports:

Bezos, in the interview, pointed out the altitude difference between the two vehicles. New Shepard has typically exceeded 100 kilometers, an altitude known as the Karman Line, on its test flights. SpaceShipTwo reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers on its most recent test flight Dec. 13, its first above the 50-mile boundary used by U.S. government agencies to award astronaut wings.

“One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet,” Bezos said. “I think one of the things they will have to figure out how to get above the Karman Line.”

“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he continued. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.”

For those who fly on New Shepard, he said, there’ll be “no asterisks.”

On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity flew to 89.9 km (55.87 miles) on its fifth flight test, which was the highest altitude the program has reached to date.

There are two competing definitions of where space begins. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is awarding civilian astronaut wings to anyone who flies above 50 miles (80.4 km). The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) recognizes 100 km (62.1 miles) as the boundary of space, although it is considering lowering the limit to 80 km (49.7 miles).

The FAA awarded astronaut wings to Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “C.J.” Sturckow, who flew VSS Unity above 50 miles in December. The crew of Friday’s flight — pilots David Mackay and Mike ‘Sooch’ Masucci, and chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses — will also qualify for astronaut wings.

New Shepard has flown 10 times without passengers; nine of those flights were above 100 km (62.1 miles). Bezos has said he expects to begin flying people aboard the suborbital spacecraft by the end of this year.

  • 76 er

    The tail number of SpaceShipOne was N328KF. This denoted what they were shooting for in order to win the Ansari X Prize, 328,000 feet – 100 km. The rules of that competition set the standard. So this altitude, IMO should remain the demarcation of space for all future flights.

  • therealdmt

    However, the US Air Force, NASA and the FAA all consider the definition to be 50 miles.

    Who cares what the “Federation Aeronautique Internationale” thinks the definition of space is?

    NASA’s say:
    https://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/multimedia/imagegallery/X-15/EC05-0177-33.html

    (Not to say that I don’t appreciate the nice even roundness of 100. It’s nice and removes any “asterisk”, I’ll admit. Meanwhile, what’s *really* needed, however, is orbit)

  • ThomasLMatula

    50 miles is a very nice round number and the flights are taking place in the USA.

  • Douglas Messier

    The FAI is the international record keeper for aviation and space records. So, yeah what they say matters.

  • WhoAmI

    True… I’m sure Branson would want to attract an international market for flights to space to expand the number of wealthy adventurists who will buy a ticket! That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if they get there by the time the first paying customer rides to space on it.

    It would be interesting with all this controversy if VG is the first to get a paying customer to the Karman line. So far, no one has been up in a BO NS, and it might not happen this year per Bezos.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I agree with you that getting into orbit is what really matters, and once there, performing some kind of useful job, not just looking around and taking selfies of yourself in strange positions. I really doubt, however, that the small percentage of the Earth’s population that calls itself “American” should have the final say on where “space” begins.

  • Vladislaw

    They would need about 6 – 7 more seconds of powered flight to get that extra 39k feet or 7 miles.

  • WhoAmI

    Interesting… How did you calculate it? I’m having trouble coming up with enough details to understand the differences between this one and the last one other than the max speed (Mach 2.9 vs 3.0) and max altitude. Did WhiteKnightTwo drop it at the same altitude? Were the upper atmosphere winds the same? Was it just engine burn duration that made the difference, or did more come into play?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Dr. Von Karman was an American scientist working at CalTech when he proposed the “Karman” line, so both definitions are American, like it or not. As for the final say, it will be by the nation that performs the majority of the activities in space including space tourism.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Only if you are after an international record. However the FAA CST seems willing to issue astronaut wings based on the American definition.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Or, Vlad, reduce the weight/fly a more aggressive profile etc.. I just think that Bezos should shut his big mouth. But, it looks like he can’t help himself from being a jerk (remember “welcome to the club”?). Regards, Paul.

  • 76 er

    I’d like to see some of the original marketing materials, brochures, etc that were produced so many years ago when tickets first went on sale. Did they promise the paying customer the same altitude as that achieved by SpaceShip One? I wonder what they did have to say. If expectations for such an expensive flight have been revised downwards in the meantime, that would be something, wouldn’t it?

  • Paul451

    Who cares what the “Federation Aeronautique Internationale” thinks the definition of space is?
    NASA’s say:

    NASA did. From its founding until 2005, it used the FAI definition. Only in 2005 did it change to the lower 50 mile level (as did the FAA), in order to retrospectively recognise the USAF test pilots, and “remove confusion between agencies” (whatever that means.)

  • Douglas Messier

    Yes. Hence the astericks next to people’s names.

  • Douglas Messier

    The passenger agreement stipulates 50 miles. Their marketing showed flights up to 110 km (68 miles). They also claimed the hybrid was safe and benign even after the nitous explosion in 2007.

  • Paul_Scutts

    I’ve already expressed my opinion re the flight profile comparison of NS verses SS2. For Jeff’s benefit, here’s my prediction; Imagine you’re at a well heeled gathering. Someone present mentions that they have flown NS. People would ask, “what was it like?”. Someone else mentions that they have flown SS2. People will likely respond, “really, was it anything like that opening scene from the movie “First Man”?”. And, they will answer, “well they don’t include an adult diaper within the special flight suit for nothing”. 🙂

  • 76 er

    Thanks for the info.

  • Emmet Ford

    Bezos wants to destroy his competition. That’s the way he rolls.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    In my opinion, astronauts go to orbit or beyond. Arguing about arbitrary demarcations of where the atmosphere finishes, or doesn’t finish, is just marketing fluff.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, but remember, the FAA is a government agency. The FAI is a NGO. It will be interesting to see if the NAA weights in on this.

    And the have changed definitions in the past. For example Yuri Gargin was disqualified for the FAI record to be the first to orbit the Earth because he bailed out of the spacecraft before it landed. Pressure from the U.S.S.R. changed their opinion, and definition.

  • Vladislaw

    I took the max speed in feet per second .. and the number of feet they fell short of 62 miles..

  • Vladislaw

    Flies higher – Lands smoother
    Flies higher – Lands smoother

    Like the old beer commercials ..

  • redneck

    One of the quick and dirty ways of figuring how much more velocity is needed to reach a certain altitude is to take the square root of the ratio of the altitude difference from MECO. (round numbers) With MECO at 40 km and altitude reached is 90 km instead of 100, velocity required is sq rt 60/50 which is pretty close to 10% more velocity needed. 90 or so more meters per second into acceleration gives a result in seconds similar to yours.

    not even back of the napkin even since I can’t afford napkins

  • Ignacio Rockwill

    How much performance do you think is left in the architecture? They got an extra 7.2 km out of this last flight with their heaviest payload. I was pleasantly surprised by that.

  • Vladislaw

    I would be only guessing. It is my understanding they do not just run the engine until it runs out .. they shut it off before then.. but I really do not know where their performance ends .. I would imagine the next flight they will try to push the envelope to see if they can tease another 40 thousand feet out of it..

  • Terry Rawnsley

    There really won’t be a “final say” as every nation will be free to recognize the beginning of “space” wherever they wish, just as they will be free to call anyone they wish an “astronaut” no matter their function on a flight. Eventually, the military and governing bodies of each country will reach informal agreement on what they all recognize as the beginning of “space” and the meaning of “astronaut.”

  • Terry Rawnsley

    To expand on your definition of “astronaut,” I would posit that the individual must perform some function critical to the success of the mission that must be performed in “space”, not just take a ride. We call those riders “passengers.”

  • Douglas Messier

    The FAA calls them spaceflight participants, which is a nice way to say passengers or space tourist. Until Friday, all the people who flew suborbital were pilots. Beth Moses went through training and her job on the flight was to evaluate the participant experience. That’s similar to a mission specialist in the shuttle program. I don’t think there’s any question she qualifies for commercial astronaut wings.

  • ThomasLMatula

    True, and when considering that it is well to remember the FAI is an NGO while the FAA CST is a government agency. So it will be interesting to see what the informal agreement will be that is finally worked out.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I don’t have a problem with her getting wings as she served a function on the flight. I’m pretty sure that Richard Branson will want to sell his service by referring to everyone who flies as an “astronaut.”

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Bezos has his own agenda and since he basically sees New Shepard as a test bed for New Glenn and New Armstrong, I doubt he really cares if Branson beats him to “space.” His competition is SpaceX and ULA.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Depends on how much respect each country has for the other’s space agency (military or civilian.) Representatives of a government (or the EU) with a space agency that has some kind of standards and access to a formal training program for astronaut training will most likely be treated as fellow astronauts. People who pay for rides on suborbital (or even orbital) vehicles will not.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I don’t think it will matter what the term is

  • Robert G. Oler

    How high it goes wont matter to the commercial success. No asterisk. Just the experience

  • Abdul M. Ismail

    I tend to agree with you Terry. Even those that weren’t a Commander or Pilot on the shuttle went up for a specific reason. Those “tourists” that wen to the ISS and paid $20 million supposedly did something.

    I mean, if you and I travelled in economy, business or first class in a commercial airliner, we wouldn’t be referred to as commercial airline pilots if all we did was sit in the back; would we?

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I think that it gets a little fuzzy when we talk about those who paid millions to Space Adventures and spent time on the ISS. Since they had to pass some sort of cosmonaut training in Russia prior to launch. I guess that the Russians can decide whether or not to call them cosmonauts. As they were not part of the crew complement and rode to space on a Russian vehicle, I would certainly not award them astronaut wings in this country or refer to them officially as “astronauts.”
    .

  • redneck

    That depends to a large extent on the motivations of the clientele. If bragging rights are a big part of it, it matters. If it is the experience, the difference between 3.5 and 4 minutes of microgravity may not be that important. If it is the view, it may be a bit fuzzy whether the additional altitude matters.

    There will be some mix of these motivations and others that will vary depending on the participant. I think the ability to say “I’ve been to space” will matter to quite a few. Fortunately, it is a falsifiable opinion that can change with additional facts after people start voting with their wallets.

  • Robert G. Oler

    probably. if Blue and VG are successful in marketing this then a threshold will have been crossed where “ordinary” people can “go to space” (more or less but more 🙂 as a “whim”, enjoy the experience, and live to tell about it…and encourage other people to do it as cost drop (which they will)

    this will be the first real “application” of people in space that turns a profit AND widens the world of people who “think” about going into space.

    based on that the “altitude” wont matter at all. what will matter is the experience and the personal enjoyment of the people who do it

    I do far less of this now since I have small children …but every so often I get to do ” a me” thing…and last summer it was diving on the Britannic. I am a good diver and in pretty good shape…but its not an easy dive at 400 feet (125 meters) and there was some training etc and significant amounts of cash laid out to do it…why? I like diving and it was to me “a fun thing to do”. I had dived on the three WW2 flattops that are accessible to amateurs (Saratoga is tricky parts of her are only 50 feet down but the hanger deck and hull are quite a bit deeper.

    it was a good experience for me (this summer is hopefully going up ie walking up Ari Mountain in Turkey) fun and unqiue

    both VG and I think Bezos can in my view tap a gold mine of funding if they can make this operation “routinely safe” and that alone is an amazing accomplishment. it would be the first human effort in “space” to do that.