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Waspie Dwarf

Is the word 'astronaut' obsolete?

October 19, 2013 | Comment icon 8 comments


Image Credit: NASA
As someone born in the sixties I am old enough to remember men walking on the Moon... just. I remember Skylab and Salyut. I remember the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the handshake in space between astronaut and cosmonaut.

I remember that April day when a totally untried vehicle, the space shuttle Columbia, blasted off from Florida. I remember the combination of excitement and trepidation I felt as I watched the TV.

I also remember the tears I shed 5 years later when Challenger exploded killing her crew of seven.

Back then you knew what an astronaut was. They were explorers pushing the boundaries, daring to do mighty things. They were heroes, doing one of the most glamorous and dangerous jobs in the world. Brave beyond belief, they were the representatives of mankind in the final frontier.

These men (with the notable exception of Valentina Tereshkova they were all men until the shuttle era) were mostly test pilots. Super fit, extremely intelligent. The best of the best. These were the closet thing to Superman that Homo sapiens had to offer.

A cosmonaut was the same, just Russian. They were rendered no less heroic because of ideological differences between nations.
The space shuttle brought us a new breed of astronaut, the Payload Specialist. These were non-NASA astronauts, experts in the specific satellite or experiments being flown. Whilst not trained to fly or operate the shuttle itself they still had a high degree of training. They were still astronauts.

Then came the International Space Station. The Russians, in conjunction with the US company Space Adventures, began to fly fare-paying tourists to the ISS. The Russians did not call them cosmonauts, instead referring to them as “space flight participants”. Space was open to everybody... well everybody that could afford to pay $20 million. These tourists still required 6 months of training. They were still required to learn Soyuz systems. Still required to undergo survival training in case of emergency landings. They were still required to pass medicals. They may have paid for the privilege but it can still be argued that they were still astronauts/cosmonauts.

But things are changing. Next year Virgin Galactic will start flying passengers on sub-orbital flights. These flights will exceed the 100 km (62 mile) limit of the Karman line which officially marks the start of space and so, technically, the passengers will be classed as astronauts.

In the years to come other companies will offer rival services. Prices will begin to fall. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands will fly into space in the next couple of decades. I have no problem with this. I envy them. I wish I had the money, but, with all the good will in the world, I can not consider these passengers as astronauts. We do not consider the passenger on a 747 to be the same as the pilot flying the vehicle and space travel should be no different.

I believe that the time has come to either re-define the word “astronaut” so that it does not include merely passengers or we need to use a new term to separate those heroes from the fare-paying tourist.

The first human on Mars may already have been born, he or she will be a special person. A new Gagarin or Armstrong. A hero for generations to come. Someone children will aspire to copy. That person deserves better than to have a job title that fails to distinguish them from a wealthy tourist.

Comments (8)

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by freetoroam 9 years ago
Got to move with the times, on Earth we have many things which are now obsolete...........and 99.99999% because of science. Even if "passengers" are thee thing of the future, you will still need an pilot, and technically he will still have "astronaut" on his cv.
Comment icon #2 Posted by Frank Merton 9 years ago
As it happened I was in Toronto the day of the moon landing, standing in front of their two modernistic city hall towers having Koolaid and cheese served by "moon maidens" in a delightful party atmosphere, watching the CBC broadcast on a huge screen. I don't think the Americans appreciated the importance of the event anything like the Canadians did.
Comment icon #3 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 9 years ago
Even if "passengers" are thee thing of the future, you will still need an pilot, and technically he will still have "astronaut" on his cv. You have entirely missed the point. My point isn't that the pilot shouldn't be considered an astronaut, it is the fact that technically the passengers WILL be considered astronauts. I believe that the term astronaut should refer only to those who are professional space pilots or explorers, not for those who simply buy a ticket.
Comment icon #4 Posted by freetoroam 9 years ago
You have entirely missed the point. My point isn't that the pilot shouldn't be considered an astronaut, it is the fact that technically the passengers WILL be considered astronauts. I believe that the term astronaut should refer only to those who are professional space pilots or explorers, not for those who simply buy a ticket. I take the point, but why would the passengers technically be considered astronauts? who says? When passengers first started being taken on planes, they were not considered pilots. A passenger is just that, I agree with you on that, but can not see how they could ever b... [More]
Comment icon #5 Posted by Still Waters 9 years ago
I believe the term 'astronaut' should definitely be reserved for the chosen few who are/were true astronauts. To me it's not right that anyone else should be given that title just because they might be fortunate enough to be a commercial passenger on a trip to mars. They shouldn't be grouped together with the real genuine astronauts, that's just wrong, and it takes away the status (for want of a better word) and importance of what the 'real' astronauts have achieved and still are doing. Great article Waspie
Comment icon #6 Posted by Daughter of the Nine Moons 9 years ago
Excellent article Waspie. Your love for space exploration and space flight shines through. I agree being wealthy enough to tour space does not make you an astronaut. It makes you a space traveling tourist. That being said...I would love to be rich enough to be one of those lucky space travelers
Comment icon #7 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 9 years ago
I take the point, but why would the passengers technically be considered astronauts? Clearly you didn't take the point otherwise you wouldn't be asking this question. They would be considered astronauts because they have travelled into space, That is what an astronaut is. who says? Everyone except you apparently. How about these for a start: astronaut nouna person who travels in a spacecraft into outer space Source: Miriam-Webster astronautnoun a person engaged in or trained for spaceflight. Source: Dictionary.com An astronaut (in the U.S.), cosmonaut (in Russia and many ex-Soviet satellite st... [More]
Comment icon #8 Posted by freetoroam 9 years ago
A commercial astronaut is a person trained to command, pilot, or serve as a crew member of a privately funded spacecraft. This is distinct from an otherwise non-government astronaut (such as Charlie Walker) who fly while representing a non-government corporation but with funding and/or training coming from government sources. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_astronaut This is a list of astronauts by year of selection, people selected for training for a human spaceflight program to command, pilot, or serve as a crew member of a spacecraft. Until recently, astronauts were sponsored and tr... [More]


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