Chao Sturckow Branson astronaut wings
Secretary of Transportation pins FAA astronaut wings on Virgin Galactic pilot Frederick “CJ” Sturckow during a Feb. 7 ceremony in Washington as Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson looks on. Credit: FAA

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration will stop awarding commercial astronaut wings at the end of this year, five months after it revised the criteria for receiving the wings.

The FAA announced Dec. 10 that it will award wings to all non-government individuals that flew on FAA-licensed commercial vehicles to date in 2021, as well as those who fly on any remaining launches through the end of the year. However, it will not award wings to anyone, either crew members or spaceflight participants, that flies on FAA-licensed vehicles after this year.

The decision means that 15 people who flew on Blue Origin’s New Shepard, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and who had not previously earned FAA wings will receive them. They include Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and actor William Shatner.

The six people flying on Blue Origin’s next New Shepard flight, NS-19, would also be eligible if their flight takes place before the end of the year. That flight is scheduled for Dec. 11 from the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas after a two-day delay because of winds.

“The U.S. commercial human spaceflight industry has come a long way from conducting test flights to launching paying customers into space,” Wayne Monteith, 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.”

The FAA said it will, in lieu of awarding wings, maintain a roster of individuals who have flown to space — defined as an altitude of at least 50 miles or about 80 kilometers — on FAA-licensed vehicles on its website. It will mark those who received FAA wings and those who have flown to space more than once.

Patti Grace Smith established the wings initiative in 2004 when she was FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation. The two people who piloted SpaceShipOne on its three flights to space that year, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, received the first wings.

The FAA did not award wings again until after the first SpaceShipTwo flight beyond the 50-mile boundary in December 2018. Mark Stucky and CJ Sturckow received wings the following February. In April 2019, David Mackay, Michael Masucci and Beth Moses received wings for the second SpaceShipTwo flight to space two months earlier.

After the flights of SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard in July 2021, the FAA announced it was revising the criteria for awarding wings. A July 20 order required that recipients to have demonstrated “activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.”

“The FAA has now changed the focus to recognize flight crew who demonstrate activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety, among other criteria,” the agency said in a statement at the time.

The new criteria appeared to rule out many of the people on the July SpaceShipTwo flight beyond the two pilots, who already had wings, since they were not involved in public or other human spaceflight safety. It would also rule out anyone on the New Shepard flight, since that vehicle is controlled from the ground.

The FAA, in that July order, also created a category of honorary commercial astronaut wings, which could go to “individuals who demonstrated extraordinary contribution or beneficial service to the commercial human space flight industry,” the agency said at the time.

The FAA said Dec. 10 that it would award two honorary astronaut wings to Peter Siebold and the late Michael Alsbury, the pilot and co-pilot respectively of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, destroyed in an October 2014 test flight. Alsbury was killed and Siebold seriously injured in the accident.

With the two honorary wings, the FAA has now awarded 24 commercial astronaut wings, with six more possible if the NS-19 mission takes place before the end of the year. Those would be the last people to receive those wings, as Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are not planning any additional crewed flights in the final three weeks of the year.

All three companies have developed their own wings or related insignia they award to those who have flown in space. The Association of Space Explorers, a professional group for current and former astronauts, announced earlier this year its “Universal Insignia” it would award to anyone who has flown on suborbital or orbital missions.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...