Astronauts or astro-nots?
Perhaps within a matter of a months, a handful of customers will board a spacecraft and fly above Earth’s atmosphere to float for a few minutes, where they will presumably gawk at our planet’s graceful curvature. Shortly after this, dozens, and soon hundreds, will follow. Space enthusiasts have made such promises about space tourism for nearly a decade, but in 2019 it’s finally coming true.
In the last three months, Virgin Galactic has completed two crewed test flights above 80km. And with its flight-tested New Shepard launch system, Blue Origin remains on track to blast its own people into space later this year. Both spacecraft can carry up to six passengers. Neither company has begun commercial operations, but these flights appear imminent. Later this year, suborbital space tourism should finally transition from long-promised to something you can do if you’re rich enough. Next year, we will likely see dozens of commercial flights.
These welcome successes have raised a question, however: just what do we call these people?
Until now, it has been fairly easy to call men and women who have gone to space astronauts (or cosmonauts in Russia, and taikonauts in China). About 560 humans have gone to space, nearly all of them into orbit, and a lucky two dozen have gone beyond. Twelve have walked on the Moon.
In 2004, the private SpaceShipOne venture clouded the picture a little bit by making a private suborbital flight. The pilots, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, had not trained as government astronauts, so the US Federal Aviation Administration created a new designation for them—commercial astronauts. Since then, the five crew members of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity flights in December and February have also earned that designation. But the FAA will only recognize “crew,” not passengers.
or now, there remains no official word on what to call non-crew members. Are they astronauts, too? Space passengers? Astro-nots? In the hopes of finding a consensus, we put that precise question to the companies, some bonafide NASA astronauts, and some experts in the aerospace community.
This is not a story about the definition of space. For a long time, the generally accepted boundary of space was 100km, the so-called the Kármán line. This artificial barrier is recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the international record-keeping organization for aerospace. But this view is not unanimous, as the US Air Force delineated 80km as “space” for its participants in the X-15 rocket plane program.
For Virgin Galactic, this is a salient issue, because its tourist flights are likely to reach a peak altitude above 80km, but below 100km. In all of its promotional materials, the company has referred to anything above 80km as space. Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, has argued that orbiting objects can survive multiple perigees at altitudes around 80 to 90km and that this altitude range is consistent with the highest physical boundary of the atmosphere, the mesopause. An altitude of 80km, McDowell says, is consistent with the lower boundary of space.
Virgin’s primary competitor in suborbital space tourism, Blue Origin, sees its guarantee of a flight above 100km as a valuable marketing point. The company will fly that high, founder Jeff Bezos said, because it does not want there to be any “asterisks” next to its customers’ names when it comes to astronaut designation.
“One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Kármán line,” Bezos said at a Wings Club luncheon in February. “The vehicle isn’t quite capable. So for most of the world, the edge of space is defined as 100 kilometers. In the US, it’s different. But I think that one of the things that they will have to figure out is how to get above the Kármán line.”
The purpose of this story is not to litigate the boundary of space, however. Rather, it is to discuss what to call people who buy tickets on suborbital vehicles. They’re not trained astronauts. (Many of NASA’s best and brightest recruits train for five years, or more, before launching). They’re not crew. Mostly, they simply had the disposable funds to buy a ticket, a free weekend, and the fortitude to strap themselves to a rocket.
Not surprisingly, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both believe people who buy their tickets—$250,000 for Virgin, and an as-yet undisclosed amount for Blue—should justifiably call themselves astronauts. We asked each company for its rationale why.
Here was Virgin Galactic‘s response:
As you know, at Virgin Galactic our customers pre-flight are Future Astronauts and post-flight they will be Astronauts.
Why? Because throughout history, any human who has flown above a certain altitude, regardless of whether it’s orbital or sub-orbital, [has] been called astronauts—or cosmonauts or taikonauts. Nonetheless, as a proud US and European brand, we’re delighted to stick with astronaut and follow the tradition set.
And here is what we received from Blue Origin:
Those who fly with Blue Origin will be called astronauts. They’ll be trained for spaceflight and will travel above the Kármán line, the internationally recognized boundary of space, joining the rank of other astronauts who have done the same.
There are few surprises in these responses, so now let us turn to some other stakeholders in the aerospace community.
NASA astronaut view
Perhaps the best people to ask about this question are some of the astronauts who have gone to space and returned as evangelists for sharing the wonders of space with those back on Earth.
Nicole Stott flew two missions to space, spending more than three months on the International Space Station in 2009, then serving as a mission specialist on space shuttle Discovery’s final flight in February 2011. During her stint on the station, Stott became the first person to paint what she saw out the window while in space. Later, after retiring from NASA, she became a founder of the Space for Art Foundation.
“I think it’s simple: if they get to ‘space,’ they’re an astronaut,” she told Ars. “We’re at a time where the opportunity for traveling to space is opening up to more people. Whether you are traveling to space as a professional who lives and works there or as someone just visiting, it seems the simplest approach is the best.”
Over time, this may need to evolve, she said. When there are many people living, working, and visiting space, there may need to be some distinction between the space professional and the visitor classification. But for now, “astronaut” works for everyone. This seems significant, coming from Stott, who was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and flew into space after nine years of training.
“I don’t mean to discount the significant difference in preparation and requirements associated with the professional versus visitor, because I don’t believe that can be argued,” she said. “I just don’t think there’s any value debating a name.”
Stott is encouraged by the prospect of more people visiting space, because she thinks more people being exposed to the “overview effect” will help more of humanity realize that we all live on a single blue-green planet, that we’re all in it together, and the only border that matters is the thin blue line of atmosphere that blankets humanity.
Another former NASA astronaut and year-2000 classmate of Stott’s, Terry Virts, expressed similar views about the importance of more people sharing the experience of spaceflight. After two missions, including a three-month tour as commander of the space station, Virts authored to share photos of Earth that he took from the station.
Virts is also is fine with calling everyone astronauts. Someone who learns to fly a glider is a pilot, just as a 747 captain or F-16 pilot is also a “pilot,” even though there is an enormous difference between them, Virts noted. So the same reasoning should apply to astronauts.
“If someone straps on a rocket and launches themselves into space and then survives re-entry and landing on Earth, I think they have earned the title of astronaut,” he said. “There is of course an enormous gap between a short ballistic flight and a flight into orbit—as there is between a short-duration mission versus a long-duration one and a flight to the Moon or even Mars—but that doesn’t take away the fact that they flew into space.”
What is the alternative?
During the early days of air travel, both commercial flight crews and their passengers were called “aviators,” but over time that use went away. A similar phenomenon may occur with space travel, as more and more people fly high.
This may come when suborbital flight is used more like an airline. Aside from tourism, one relatively near-term aspiration of Virgin Galactic (and SpaceX, with its much larger Starship vehicle) is point-to-point travel that would carry people one-quarter or half-way around the world in less than an hour. That may well be the stage at which any designation of “astronaut” for suborbital flight gives way to “passenger,” but we’re not there yet.
Several alternatives to astronaut have been mooted for people who will fly on Virgin’s VSS Unity, Blue’s New Shepard capsule, and other vehicles under development to reach space. Generically, they might be called “space tourists,” “space fliers,” or “space travelers.”
There are bureaucratic options, too. In the past, NASA has called self-funded fliers such as multimillionaire Dennis Tito, who bought access to the International Space Station via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, “spaceflight participants.”
“That is bland and bureaucratic, and I don’t think it should be used outside of NASA memoranda,” said McDowell, the Harvard University astrophysicist. He prefers the term astronauts but might allow for a distinction between professional astronauts and some other designation such as private astronauts.
Among those we spoke with, perhaps the most acceptable alternative to astronaut was “space tourist.” This is accurate, reflecting that someone has gone to space and paid their own way, and it is useful for distinguishing a passenger from crew. However, it is not particularly sexy. What would you rather be—an astronaut like Neil Armstrong, or an Instagram influencer-turned space tourist?
We’re going with “astronauts”
The aerospace community first confronted this naming question after Tito’s privately-funded flight the space station in 2001, said Robert Pearlman, editor of the CollectSpace website. Pearlman was director of marketing for Space Adventures, which organized the trip for Tito and six other private individuals who followed on Soyuz missions to the station, for up to two weeks, through 2009. Despite NASA’s clinical title of “spaceflight participant,” given their extended training and crew activities, these ISS visitors generally came to be regarded as astronauts.
But the current iteration of space tourism is clearly different. Trips to space won’t cost $40 million but will be closer to a quarter of a million dollars. They won’t last for two weeks, but 10 minutes. And it won’t be a handful of people but at least hundreds. In the eyes of some, these new weekend dabblers in spaceflight won’t quite have earned the “astronaut” label.
What seems clear is that the flight providers, Virgin and Blue, intend to call their ticket buyers “astronauts.” It seems likely that the participants, themselves, will want to be called astronauts as well. Suborbital flights have a lot to offer those who take them—a kick in the seat from lighting a rocket engine, weightlessness, and of course the view from the heavens above. But perhaps, above all, there is the cachet of becoming an “astronaut” in name, something that fewer than 600 humans can claim throughout the history of this world.
“Part of the attraction of these commercial suborbital flights, at least to some and at first, will be the opportunity to return home as an ‘astronaut,’ Pearlman said. “And maybe that is what they should be called until the activity graduates from being a feat or stunt to one of day-to-day life.”
The media is likely to default to what the companies and fliers call themselves, unless someone official—NASA, the US Air Force, or the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale—issues a kind of firm directive saying otherwise. This seems unlikely.
So we’re ready to welcome the hundreds and perhaps thousands of new “astronauts” coming home from space in the next few years. Truthfully, they’re supporting commercial spaceflight efforts by paying a premium up front. Ultimately, by doing so, we hope they’re helping to democratize access to space for the rest of us in years to come.
Sources: • Arstechnica
Featured Image: Virgin Galactic