Can private space travelers be called astronauts?

Astronauts? Amateur astronauts? Space tourists? Space travelers? Rocket riders? What do we call the new generation of space travelers?

CAP CANAVERAL, Fla. – As more companies start selling space tickets, the question arises: Who can be called an astronaut? This is already a complicated problem and about to become even more so as the rich take over spaceship seats and even entire flights for themselves and those around them.

Astronauts? Amateur astronauts? Space tourists? Space travelers? Rocket riders? Or as the Russians have been saying for decades, the participants in space flights?

New NASA boss Bill Nelson doesn’t consider himself an astronaut even though he spent six days orbiting Earth in 1986 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia – as a member of Congress.

“I reserve this term for my professional colleagues,” Nelson recently told The Associated Press.

Video game developer Richard Garriott – who traveled to the International Space Station in 2008 with the Russians – hates the space tourism label. “I’m an astronaut,” he said in an email, explaining that he had trained for two years for the mission.

“If you go to space, you are an astronaut,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria of Axiom Space, a former NASA astronaut who will accompany three businessmen to the space station in January, at the helm of SpaceX. . Its customers of $ 55 million per seat plan to conduct research there, he stressed, and do not see themselves as space tourists.

There is something enchanting about the word: astronaut comes from the Greek words for star and sailor. And the stunning images of “The Right Stuff” and the original Astronauts from NASA’s Mercury 7 are great marketing.

Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, is already calling its future customers “astronauts.” It is auctioning off a seat on its first space flight with people on board, scheduled for July. NASA even has a new acronym: PAM for Private Astronaut Mission.

Retired NASA astronaut Mike Mullane did not consider himself an astronaut until his first space shuttle flight in 1984, six years after his selection by NASA.

“It doesn’t matter if you buy a ride or get assigned to a ride,” said Mullane, whose 2006 autobiography is titled “Riding Rockets.” Until you get in a rocket and get to a certain altitude, “you are not an astronaut.”

It remains a highly coveted mission. More than 12,000 candidates applied for the next NASA astronaut class; a dozen lucky ones will be selected in December.

But what about the passengers accompanying the ride, like the Russian actress and director who will fly to the space station in October? Or the moon-struck Japanese billionaire who will follow them from Kazakhstan in December with his production assistant to document everything? In each case, a professional cosmonaut will be in charge of the Soyuz capsule.

SpaceX’s high-tech capsules are fully automated, just like those of Blue Origin. So should wealthy horsemen and their guests be called astronauts even though they are learning the ropes in case they need to respond to an emergency?

Perhaps more importantly, where does the space begin?

The Federal Aviation Administration limits its commercial astronaut wings to flight crews. The minimum altitude is 80 kilometers. So far he has awarded seven; the recipients include the two pilots of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic who performed another test flight of the company rocket on Saturday.

Others define space as starting at 100 kilometers, or 62 miles above sea level.

Blue Origin capsules are designed to reach this threshold and provide a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth. On the other hand, it takes 1h30 to go around the world. The Space Explorers Association needs at least one Earth orbit – in a spaceship – to become a member.

The Astronaut Memorial Foundation honors all those who sacrificed their lives for the U.S. space program even though they never made it to space, such as Challenger schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and the test pilot killed in a Virgin Galactic crash in 2014. Also on the Space Mirror Memorial at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center: Air Force X-15 and F-104 pilots who were part of a military space program that didn’t never took off.

The astronaut debate has been around since the 1960s, according to Garriott. His late father, Owen Garriott, was among the first so-called scientist-astronauts hired by NASA; the test pilots in the office were unhappy to share the job title.

It might be necessary to remove the term altogether once hundreds, if not thousands, have reached space, noted Fordham University history professor Asif Siddiqi, author of several space books. “Are we going to call all of them astronauts?”

Mullane, the three-time space shuttle pilot, suggests using Astronaut First Class, Second Class, Third Class, “depending on your involvement, if you take out a wallet and write a check.”

While a military-style pecking order might work, former NASA historian Roger Launius warned, “It really gets complicated very quickly.”

Ultimately, Mullane noted, “Astronaut is not a copyrighted word. So anyone who wants to call themselves an astronaut can call themselves an astronaut, whether or not they’ve been in space.

The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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