Richard Branson Gets His Astronaut Wings, Aims to Eliminate Asterisk* Next Time

Unity 22 crew: Michael Masucci, Colin Bennett, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla, David Mackay and Beth Moses at the 37th Space Symposium. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Billionaire aims to go higher and faster next time
  • Virgin Galactic still can’t get SpaceShipTwo all the way up (to Karman line)
  • FAA throws in the towel on deciding who is and who isn’t an astronaut

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Earlier this month, Richard Branson and two Virgin Galactic employees received commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity flight test they took part in last July. The trio was the last group to receive the wings — FAA ended the program last year — and the honors came with a pretty big asterisk.

NASA and the FAA hold that space begins at an altitude of 50 miles (80.5 km). The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, which keeps air sports records, sets the boundary 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. Branson’s flight peaked at 86 km (53.4 miles). VSS Unity has reached a maximum altitude of 89.9 km (55.9 miles) during its four suborbital flight tests.

So, Branson is not officially recognized as an astronaut outside the United States. Virgin Galactic has always acted as if this is a distinction without a difference — passengers still get to float around for several minutes while taking in spectacular views of Earth. It’s not that different from the experience offered by Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle, which does fly above the Karman line.

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Even so, Jeff Bezos’ company hasn’t been shy about pointing out New Shepard has no trouble getting it all the way up. Behind the smiles and denials, the claim that SpaceShipTwo doesn’t really reach space probably rankles for a company as concerned with image and perception as Virgin Galactic.

A Long, Twisting Road

Branson’s flight was long in coming; when he announced plans for SpaceShipTwo in September 2004, he predicted space tourism flights would begin within three years. More than 17 years later, the system remains in flight test and has yet to fly a single paying customer. Commercial service is now scheduled to begin in the fourth quarter of this year — providing VSS Unity completes flight tests planned for this summer.

With his long-awaited SpaceShipTwo flight finally behind him, Branson is setting his sights on another adventure that would permanently remove the asterisk attached to his suborbital ride. CNBC reports the billionaire

hopes to next trade flights with Elon Musk and fly with SpaceX.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to go up on one of his spaceships one day, and he’ll be able to go up on one of ours,” Branson told CNBC on Tuesday.

It would be a rather unequal trade. Virgin Galactic charges $450,000 apiece for a flight that provides several minutes of weightlessness; a seat aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon reportedly costs $55 million for a multi-day trip to orbit or visit to the International Space Station (ISS). Branson says Musk purchased a ticket on SpaceShipTwo some years ago.

Richard Branson celebrates the first Virgin Galactic trade on the New York Stock Exchange. (Credit Virgin Galactic)

Wall Street Windfall

Branson shouldn’t have any trouble affording it. The decision to take Virgin Galactic public in October 2019 has been a windfall. He has pulled in an estimated $1.3 billion from stock sales and funding provided by Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), the special purpose acquisition company that took Virgin Galactic public through a merger.

Chamath Palihapitiya (Credit: SCH)

While Branson has cashed out, the stock has sunk as Virgin Galactic experienced repeated delays in starting commercial service. On Monday, the stock was trading at $8.53, well below its debut price of $12.34. Law firms have launched a number of class action suits alleging fraud on behalf of unhappy shareholders.

Prior to the merger, Virgin Galactic and SCH projected that commercial flights would start in June 2020. That date has been pushed back more than two years to the end of 2022 after the completion of two additional flight tests.

Neither Virgin Galactic nor SCH disclosed to shareholders before or after approval of the merger that VSS Unity was not in flying condition. It had been serious damaged during a suborbital flight test conducted on Feb. 22, 2019. After word of the incident leaked to the media, Virgin Galactic President Michael Moses said the three-person crew — which included his wife, Beth Moses — was lucky the vehicle didn’t crash.

Virgin Galactic would not attempt another suborbital flight until Dec. 12, 2020; that test was aborted as the engine began to fire due to an onboard computer reboot. It took another five months — until May 22, 2021 — for VSS Unity to make another flight above 50 miles (80.5 km), some 27 months after after its previous one.

Branson’s Debt to Bezos

Jeff Bezos

Branson probably has Bezos to thank for his commercial astronaut wings. On May 5, 2021, Bezos announced he would fly passengers on New Shepard for the first time on July 20, 2021 to mark the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. In early June, Bezos announced he would be one of four people on the flight.

Virgin Galactic’s test schedule included a mission with a load of microgravity experiments, a flight with four employees in the passenger cabin for the first time, and another in which Branson would fly to help evaluate the passenger experience.

That schedule would have allowed Bezos to fly to space before Branson had his chance. After VSS Unity completed a successful research mission on May 22, Virgin Galactic decided to put it founder on the earlier flight test with the goal of flying him before Bezos.

Branson swore up and down to anyone who would listen that was not the intent, it was absolutely not a race, we’re all in this together, etc. etc. Nobody really believed him. The source who allowed Parabolic Arc to break the story in early June said that was the reason Virgin Galactic decided to put him on the earlier flight.

VSS Unity‘s July 11 flight allowed the company to maintain its claim to be the world’s first spaceline. In order to fly Branson, who is not a Virgin Galactic employee, the company needed to obtain a license to carry passengers from the FAA. (The vehicle had been operating on an experimental permit.) The agency obliged, granting a license that allowed Virgin Galactic to fly its founder first. Blue Origin received its license at a later date.

Following Branson’s flight, the FAA grounded VSS Unity for a couple of months because Virgin Galactic had failed to inform the agency that the vehicle had flown outside its assigned airspace. Virgin Galactic then decided to postpone the flight test Branson was originally supposed to fly on until summer 2022 while VSS Unity and its WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mothership underwent about 8 months of upgrades.

Assuming the same sequence of events, Branson would not have flown last year if he decided to take the later flight. He wouldn’t have qualified for commercial astronaut wings given the FAA’s later decision to only award them for launches before Dec. 31, 2021. The agency’s decision to end the program is an interesting story.

How to Define An Astronaut

Group photo of the Mercury 7 astronauts. (Credit: NASA)

In the early year of space travel, the definition of an astronaut was fairly simple. They were full-time employees of a national space agency who trained for years for a relative handful of coveted seats. This situation started to change in the 1980’s when NASA began flying non-professional astronauts aboard the space shuttle. The list included researchers, members of Congress (including current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson), and school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died on Challenger.

The Soviet Union flew guest cosmonauts from friendly nations, a Japanese television reporter and a British researcher. In the 2000’s, Russia flew seven paying customers to ISS on eight missions (Charles Simonyi flew twice). These millionauts or billionauts) went through six months of training prior to their flights. The FAA created the designation of spaceflight participant to distinguish them from full-time, professional astronauts.

Space tourist Dennis Tito (Credit: NASA)

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have reduced training times down to two or three days, respectively, for brief suborbital rides. Travelers don’t have to have any specialized degrees or meet rigorous physical requirements to fly. They can be almost any age; Star Trek actor William Shatner flew on New Shepard at 90 (a new world record). If you have the money and are in reasonable physical shape, then welcome aboard.

The new vehicles have stretched the definition of astronaut like Silly Putty. The FAA actually went through three policies for awarding commercial astronaut wings last year. The flights by Branson and Bezos illustrate some of the problems the agency faced in determining who would be designated as astronauts.

Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses floats in the cabin as David Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci pilot VSS. Unity. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Of the six people on Branson’s flight, three already had their wings. Pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci earned theirs for piloting VSS Unity on the suborbital flight that nearly crashed in February 2019. Beth Moses, who is Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor and interiors program manager, earned her wings for that same flight. She spent her time on board evaluating the experience for future passengers.

Branson’s flight was the first time that all four seats in the passenger cabin were filled. Virgin Galactic designated Branson, Moses and two Virgin Galactic employees — government affairs vice president Sirisha Bandla and lead operations engineer Colin Bennett — as mission specialists who were aboard to evaluate the passenger experience. Bandla also carried a small experiment she activated during the flight. Mostly, what they did was float around for several minutes when they weren’t strapped into their seats.

Crew and passengers of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flight test. From left to right, David Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla and Michael Masucci. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Awarding astronaut wings to Moses made sense. Her full-time job is to oversee cabin design and train future passengers. She can’t do that without flying. But, do three days of training and a couple of minutes floating around in zero gravity really qualify Branson, Bandla and Bennett for astronaut wings? Should they get the same award as the pilots who flew VSS Unity? Or those who train for months to fly to orbit? How does one define a mission specialist, anyway?

FAA Tightens Up Requirements

On the very day of Bezos’ flight, that is to say July 20, FAA tightened up restrictions for awarding commercial astronaut wings. Awardees would have to fly above 50 miles (80.5 km), meet federal regulations for crew qualifications and training, and demonstrate “activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” The last part about public or spaceflight safety was a new element of the policy.

New Shepard is a completely automated vehicle without pilots aboard. Customers go through 14 hours of instruction over two days prior to climbing aboard. Once the hatch closes, they really don’t have any real role in the flight’s outcome. Mission control and the ship’s computers are in charge.

Jeff Bezos pins Blue Origin astronaut wings on actor William Shatner. (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

Under the new policy, Bezos and his fellow passengers would not qualify for wings. Nor would Shatner and nine other people who flew on New Shepard during flights in October and December. However, one could argue that Bezos and his three companions were also mission specialists evaluating the passenger experience because they were the first to fly on the vehicle and could provide valuable feedback on the passenger experience. Minus the experiment, was it really different from what Branson and company did nine days earlier?

FAA’s new policy had an effective date of July 20. Would it be fair to award wings only to Virgin Galactic’s mission specialists for a flight that occurred only nine days before the agency changed its policy? Did the agency really want to give one billionaire wings and not the other? Especially since both their companies have pioneered the new industry?

It’s Off to Orbit We Go….

Inspiration4 crew members Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux , Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski stand atop Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: SpaceX)

FAA’s new policy faced another challenge with the launch of the Inspiration4 mission in September. SpaceX launched four non-professional astronauts into orbit for a three-day excursion aboard a modified Crew Dragon spacecraft. All of them went through about six months of training at SpaceX to prepare for the flight, so they might meet the federal regulations for crew qualifications and training. However, they had different roles on the flight.

Inspiration4 was commanded by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire who is an experienced jet pilot. Sian Proctor — an educator, finalist in NASA’s 2009 astronaut selection and major in the Civil Air Patrol — served as the mission’s pilot. They would both appear to qualify for commercial astronaut wings given they were flying the ship.

Inspiration4 crew in orbit. (Credit: Inspiration4)

But, what about the two mission specialists, Hayley Arceneaux and Christopher Sembroski? Did either of them do anything that was “essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety”, as the FAA defined the criteria for commercial astronaut wings?

Arceneaux, who is a physician’s assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, was designated the mission’s medical officer. There were no known medical emergencies during the flight; if one of the crew had developed a serious condition, SpaceX would have brought the ship back to Earth at the earliest opportunity.

But, did FAA really want to award wings to only half the crew? And how would the public react? Arceneaux is a childhood cancer survivor who works with children suffering from cancer at the hospital that saved her life. She’s doing God’s work here on Earth. Did FAA really want to tell her that months of training and three days in space didn’t qualify her as an astronaut? That probably wouldn’t have gone over very well.

FAA Throws Up its Hands

On Dec. 10, the FAA threw in the towel on trying to make such fine distinctions. The agency announced that anyone who flew above 50 miles (80.5 km) before the end of the year would get wings. All those who flew after that date would be acknowledged on the agency’s website. The announcement came the day before New Shepard’s third and final human spaceflight of 2021.

In its press release, the agency declared victory even as it sounded a retreat.

“The U.S. commercial human spaceflight industry has come a long way from conducting test flights to launching paying customers into space,” FAA Associate Administrator Wayne Monteith said. “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 expects the commercial human spaceflight industry to continue to grow and the number of people launching to space to increase dramatically in the coming years.

The Wings program was created by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s former Associate Administrator, the late Patti Grace Smith. Its purpose was to recognize pilots and flight crew who furthered the FAA’s mission to promote the development of vehicles designed to carry humans into space. With three commercial space companies now licensed by the FAA to fly spaceflight participants, and companies conducting operations, her vision is largely fulfilled. 

In essence, the FAA decided if it couldn’t award astronaut wings to everyone who made it above 50 miles (80.5 km), then nobody would get them in the future. In the process, the agency relieved itself of a massive headache.

In the end, Branson, Bezos and everyone who flew with them received wings. So did the entire Inspiration4 crew along with Shatner and the nine New Shepard fliers. Problem solved.

Pete Siebold under canopy approaches the desert floor. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

FAA also awarded honorary commercial astronaut wings to Scaled Composites pilots Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury for their contribution to private spaceflight. They were piloting SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise when the vehicle broke up during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. Siebold parachuted to safety with serious injuries; Alsbury died in the breakup of the vehicle.

While the early commercial astronauts receive wings, anyone flying after 2021 ended is out of luck. That includes Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe, who are currently taking part in the first fully private mission to the space station. The Crew Dragon flight was chartered by Axiom Space and commanded by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Axiom Mission 1 astronauts, left to right, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, Michael López-Alegría, and Eytan Stibbe. The astronauts are approved by NASA and its international partners for Axiom Space’s first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. (Credits: Chris Gunn – Axiom Space)

In the end, it might not matter all that much. They are still lucky enough to be able to spend 12 days in space, something 99.99 percent of the public can’t afford. That should be more than enough.