Today’s Tidbits: July 6, 2021

Today’s Tidbits: July 6, 2021

Here are’s tidbits for July 6, 2021:  who gets FAA commercial astronaut wings?; NASA seeks new LETS lunar lander ideas; Ingenuity flies again. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline for live-tweeting of events and other up-to-the-minute news.

Who Gets FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings?

With Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson about to fly across the air/space line on their own suborbital vehicles, and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon taking the Inspiration4 and Ax-1 crews to orbit, the ranks of FAA commercial astronauts could soon be swelling. But who among those crews will get a pin?

An FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) fact sheet lays out the eligibility requirements and the intent behind them.  Here are two snips.


We asked the FAA to clarify what “flight crew qualifications” are since the law refers only to crew and space flight participants. It does not differentiate between “crew” and “flight crew.” Here is the FAA’s reply:

Per regulatory definition (14 CFR 401.5):

Flight crew means crew that is on board a vehicle during a launch or reentry.

Crew means any employee or independent contractor of a licensee, transferee, or permittee, or of a contractor or subcontractor of a licensee, transferee, or permittee, who performs activities in the course of that employment or contract directly relating to the launch, reentry, or other operation of or in a launch vehicle or reentry vehicle that carries human beings. A crew consists of flight crew and any remote operator.

Space flight participant means an individual, who is not crew, carried aboard a launch vehicle or reentry vehicle.

The operator determines who is a crew member and who is a space flight participant. The FAA confirms whether the individual meets the relevant regulatory definitions, qualifications and training for the designation.

So “flight crew” refers to crew members (company employees or contractors) on board the vehicle and are distinct from space flight participants. The former are eligible for wings and the latter are not, which could pose some prickly situations.

Branson’s VSS Unity 22 flight should be comparatively simple because everyone on board is a company employee and likely could be said to be engaged in “launch, reentry, or other operation of” the spaceship, even if it is just to see what it’s like. Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses earned FAA astronaut wings in 2019 along with the spaceship’s two pilots. Her role was to unstrap from her seat and float about the cabin to evaluate the astronaut experience.

But Bezos is flying with three non-employees: his brother, Mark; a wealthy person who is paying $28 million for the privilege; and a famous aviator, Wally Funk. No doubt they all want FAA commercial astronaut wings, especially Funk who’s been waiting six decades for her chance to be an astronaut.

On Jared Isaacman’s Inspiration4, none of the fliers are SpaceX employees. Axiom’s Ax-1 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria (a former NASA astronaut) is an Axiom employee, but not the other three people who will be aboard.

The crew of Inspiration4 (L-R): Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Haley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski.
Crew of Ax-1 (L-R): Michael López-Alegria, Mark Pathy, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe. Credit: Axiom.

Maybe the companies will make all of them contractors and give them similar crew training so there are no space flight participants only crew?  Time will tell.

Getting an opportunity to fly into space is a great adventure in and of itself, but in these early days it could be awkward if only some get wings. Eventually it will be no different than an airline pilot wearing wings and passengers not, but that will be some time off.

Robert Pearlman of CollectSPACE published an article recently about the history of astronaut insignia and a decision by the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) to create a Universal Astronaut Insignia for anyone who flies into space. Membership in ASE is restricted to those who have made the journey regardless of what country — or company — made it possible.

The description at the bottom of the images reads: “The Universal Astronaut Insignia, in suborbital and orbital variants, is the first lapel pin to represent everyone who has flown to space. The ascending and descending chevrons crowned with a five-point star symbolize the journey to space and return to Earth. The circlet is added to represent orbital flight. (Association of Space Explorers.)”

Perhaps that will turn out to be the “must have” memento for space travelers.

NASA Seeks New “LETS” Lunar Lander Ideas

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is still deciding whether NASA followed correct procedures in awarding the first Human Landing System (HLS) contract to SpaceX in April, but the agency is proceeding with the next step nonetheless — a request for other HLS concepts to satisfy NASA’s long-term lunar exploration and utilization needs.

NASA calls them Lunar Exploration and Transportation Services (LETS).

NASA’s Artemis program is designed to return astronauts to the lunar surface as soon as 2024 as the first step in a long-term sustained program of lunar surface activities. The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew spacecraft have been in development for years to take astronauts to lunar orbit, but getting down to and back from the surface requires HLS systems that do not yet exist.

NASA wanted two HLS contractors, but Congress provided only 25 percent of the funding NASA requested for FY2021, so it could choose only one for now — SpaceX.  Its two competitors, Blue Origin (with its National Team of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics, are protesting the award. GAO has until August 4 to issue a ruling.

NASA stresses that the SpaceX award was only for the first landing mission and said it would soon release a new procurement for HLS systems for future missions.

On Thursday (July 1), NASA took a step in that direction, releasing the “Sustainable Human Landing System Studies and Risk Reduction” Broad Agency Announcement (BAA). Replies are due on August 2, just prior to the expected GAO decision.

The BAA is not the same as the $2.9 billion contract SpaceX won to build an HLS system. Instead, it is for concept studies and risk reduction. NASA said it is “seeking new work to mature designs and conduct technology and engineering risk-reduction tasks” for HLS.  “Prior to opening the call for commercial space lunar transportation on a recurring basis, NASA is asking U.S. companies to hone HLS concepts and safety measures.” These awards for firm fixed-price contracts up to $45 million will be made before the end of this year. NASA will seek proposals “for repeatable HLS services in 2022.”

NASA is holding an informational briefing for industry on the BAA tomorrow, July 7, at 1:00 pm ET.

Ingenuity Flies Again

NASA’s intrepid Ingenuity helicopter just made its ninth flight on Mars.

The first vehicle to achieve powered flight on another world, Ingenuity is far exceeding expectations. After successfully concluding its five-flight test phase, it was assigned an operational task of supporting the Perseverance rover in its exploration of the Red Planet.

On this flight, controllers said they were taking the helicopter on “a high-speed flight across unfriendly terrain” far from the rover. Ingenuity was programmed to set new records for distance (625 meters), groundspeed (5 meters per second) and time aloft (167 seconds).

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