The United States Astronaut Badge, the least awarded qualification badge of the United States military, is a space-related badge awarded to those having flown at least eighty kilometres above the surface of the Earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awards its Astronaut badge to any astronauts who have been selected for participation in the space program, regardless of whether or not they have even been in a vehicle capable of leaving the ground. A variation of the Astronaut badge is also issued to civilians who are employed with NASA as “specialists on spaceflight missions”. Finally, the FAA’s Commercial Astronaut Wings Program is designed to recognize flight crewmembers who further the FAA’s mission to promote the safety of vehicles designed to carry humans. “Astronaut Wings” are given to flight crew who have demonstrated a safe flight to and return from space on an FAA/AST licensed mission; they’re only issued to members of crews of privately funded spacecraft.
The emblem for the first set of FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings issued in 2004 has in its centre a green globe on a blue background, with the three-prong astronaut symbol superimposed on top. In yellow block text around the globe are the words “COMMERCIAL SPACE TRANSPORTATION” in all capital letters. In a gold ring outside the blue are the words “Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration” in black. Beginning with the wings awarded for flights in 2018, the design has been simplified to be the astronaut symbol, surrounded by the words “Commercial Space Transportation”, all in gold on a black background.
When talking about the United States Astronaut Badge, let’s look at the United States Armed Forces, the military forces of the United States of America. It consists of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. All branches of the United States Armed Forces issue the Astronaut badge, and each iteration is based upon a winged aviation badge with a shooting star flying through a halo, an “astronaut device”. On March 1, 2019, the Department of Defense sent a proposal to Congress that would establish the United States Space Force as an independent military service within the Department of the Air Force. If approved, this would become the sixth military service branch to be created. The President of the United States (POTUS) is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and forms military policy with the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), both federal executive departments, acting as the principal organs by which military policy is carried out. All five armed services are among the seven uniformed services of the United States of America.
Army Regulation 600–8–22 on Military Awards states that an Army Astronaut Device is “A gold colored device, 7/16-inches in length, consisting of a star emitting three contrails encircled by an elliptical orbit. It is awarded by the Chief of Staff, Army, to personnel who complete a minimum of one operational mission in space (50 miles above earth) and is affixed to the appropriate Army Aviator Badge, Flight Surgeon Badge, or Aviation Badge awarded to the astronaut. Individuals who have not been awarded one of the badges listed above but who meet the other astronaut criteria will be awarded the basic Aviation Badge with Army Astronaut Device”.
Qualifying for this badge is no small feat. To start, only officers are eligible for the designation, and then only if they have trained, achieved qualification, and been certified to pilot a powered craft that was designed to be flown at least eighty kilometres above the surface of the Earth. Then comes the most difficult part: actually completing a flight that meets those parameters. The eighty kilometres limit was introduced in the 1960s, when the Department of Defense made the decision to award the Astronaut badge to any military personnel and civilians who had surpassed an altitude of eighty kilometres, replacing the previous standard of roughly one hundred kilometres. This change enabled many U.S. Air Force test pilots who had flown the experimental North American X-15, a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft, to earn the highly coveted badge, an honour they certainly deserved considering they were traveling at speeds over seven thousand and three hundred kilometres per hour.
Each of the military services issues its own version of the Astronaut badge, which consists of a standard aviation badge with an astronaut device (shooting star through a halo) centred on the badge’s shield, or escutcheon (a shield that forms the main or focal element in an achievement of arms). The U.S. Air Force Astronaut Badge consists of a standard USAF aeronautical badge upon which is centred the astronaut device. The gold astronaut device is issued by the U.S. Army to Army aviators, flight surgeons, and aircrew members that qualify as astronauts. The astronaut device is a gold shooting star and elliptical orbit which is affixed over the shield of previously awarded army aviation badges. Army astronauts that have yet to fly a mission and have not previously been awarded any aviation badge are awarded the army aviation badge. Once they have flown a mission, they are awarded the astronaut device which is affixed to the shield of their army aviation badge. The naval astronaut insignias are issued in a single degree to naval aviators and flight officers from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard, with officers of all three branches receiving their designations as aviators or flight officers through the naval aviation flight training program. All three branches also wear the same insignia which consists of naval aviator insignia or naval flight officer insignia with a centred gold astronaut device. However, the Coast Guard only issues the naval flight officer version of the astronaut insignia to its astronauts.
NASA has a civilian astronaut badge, which is issued to civilian personnel who participate in U.S. space missions. In addition to the civilian astronaut badge, which is worn on a military uniform, an astronaut pin is also issued to all NASA astronauts. It is a lapel pin, worn on civilian clothing. The pin is issued in two grades, silver and gold, with the silver pin awarded to candidates who have successfully completed astronaut training and the gold pin to astronauts who have actually flown in space. Astronaut candidates are given silver pins but are required to purchase the gold pin at a cost of approximately four hundred dollars.
A unique astronaut pin was made for NASA astronaut Deke Slayton (March 1, 1924 – June 13, 1993), an American World War II pilot, aeronautical engineer, and test pilot who was selected as one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts, and became NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, in 1967. It was gold in colour, like the ones given to astronauts who had flown, and it had a small diamond embedded in the star. It was made at the request of the crew of the first manned mission of the Apollo program as a tribute to Slayton’s work at NASA. The idea was that everyone in the Astronaut Office had thought Slayton would never get to fly in space (which he actually did, at the age of fifty-one). However, as they knew it was primarily because of him that they managed to do so, he should wear a gold pin rather than a silver one as a token of appreciation. As they knew Slayton would refuse to wear exactly the same gold pin as veteran astronauts, the diamond was added. The pin was supposed to have been flown on board the Apollo 1 spacecraft, then given to Slayton after the mission was over. However, the Apollo 1 crew died in a fire during a training exercise on January 27, 1967. The pin was given to Slayton by the three widows of the dead crew as a token of condolence. This diamond-studded gold pin was later flown to the Moon on board Apollo 11 in July 1969.
One silver astronaut pin currently rests on the surface of the Moon, left there by astronaut Alan Bean during Apollo 12 in 1969. As of today, almost six hundred people have achieved human spaceflight (even though the criteria for determining who has achieved human spaceflight vary). That is what we can say concerning the United States Astronaut Badge.