Can Richard Branson really be called an astronaut after Sunday’s Virgin Galactic flight?

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On May 5, 1961, Commander Alan Shepard piloted his Mercury Freedom 7 spacecraft to a height of 116 miles above the planet’s surface to become the first American to reach Earth orbit. Last Sunday Sir Richard Branson was escorted to a 50-mile altitude by Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity. Somehow these men are now considered astronauts.

The inconsistency here lies in the fact that since the space age began, the world’s exoplanetary forces have never really reached the formalization of where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and where the “universe” begins – so freely defined. Even within the U.S. federal bureaucracy, different agencies use different standards. What NASA’s mission control believes is that the edge of space is actually 26 miles away from where NOAA and the U.S. Air Force mark the atmospheric boundary. So, the next time you rush through the Mesosphere, keep an eye on your altimeter if you want to earn the astronaut’s desired badge.

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