Bad news, Jeff Bezos — despite going to space, you’re not an astronaut.
That’s according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which laid out new rules on the same day as Bezos’ flight on July 20. Although the founder of spaceflight firm Blue Origin flew past the internationally recognized boundary of space known as the “Kármán line,” the administration now claims that going to space is not enough to be recognized as an astronaut.
The shifting definition highlights how the language around space may start to shift as space moves from a fact-finding mission for highly-trained personnel to an extravagant vacation for the ultra-rich.
How it will change is less clear. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University’s Center for Astrophysics, tells Inverse that he thinks we need a new term to specifically refer to professional astronauts — “‘space crew’ or ‘spacer’ perhaps.”
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Astronaut: What does it mean?
The Online Etymology Dictionary claims the word “astronaut” emerged in the scientific literature in 1929, derived from the Greek “astro” for star and “nautes” for sailor. It was popularized during the Cold War-era space program.
Followers of the early space race may also remember “cosmonaut,” which refers to astronauts from Russia and the Soviet Union. The dictionary also explains that the word emerged in 1959 as an anglicized version of the Russian “kosmonavt.” This word ultimately comes from the same Greek roots.
Some sources also use the term “taikonaut” to refer to Chinese astronauts. This word is derived from the Chinese “taikong,” meaning outer space. State-affiliated outlet CGTN notes that the Chinese term for astronaut is actually “hangtianyuan.”
Dating back to the early days of space travel, the word you used to describe yourself had political implications.
Margaret Weitekamp, curator and department chair of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s space history department, tells Inverse that these definitions have “some very old Cold War roots.”
It’s not just political affiliation tied up in these terms. Weitekamp explains that there was an incentive for U.S. Air Force pilots to receive “astronaut wings,” as it would boost their service record. That created an incentive for pilots to become “astronauts.”
Going to space could be enough, but it’s unclear where space begins. One popular definition is the Kármán line, named after Hungarian engineer Theodore von Kármán. This is the line where aerodynamic forces give way to orbital forces, so it would be no longer possible to generate lift with an airplane’s wing.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale claims this line is at 100 kilometers or 62 miles. McDowell says this definition is “uninteresting and poorly motivated.” In a 2018 paper, McDowell instead argued that line lies at 80 kilometers or around 50 miles.
At first, only two X-15 — an experimental rocket-powered jet — flights reached the 62-mile boundary, but in 2005, NASA awarded Astronaut Wings to three military pilots who reached above 50 miles.
But based on the FAA’s new guidance, getting past that mark isn’t enough.
Astronaut: What did the FAA say?
The administration awards the Commercial Space Astronaut Wings to people who meet the criteria to encourage commercial space transport. The first set of wings were awarded in 2004 to Scales Composites test pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie.
A press release on June 19, 2020, laid out the criteria as:
– Must be an FAA licensed launch;
– Must meet the requirements for flight crew qualifications and training under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 460; and
– Must demonstrate flight beyond 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth as flight crew on an FAA licensed or permitted launch reentry vehicle.
But the administration’s July 20 order tweaked the definition by removing the first point and adding a third, stricter bullet point:
c. Demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.
The FAA is not the only group to recognize 50 miles as the boundary of space. The United States Air Force also uses that definition, which meant that three sixties-era test pilots for the X-15 rocket plane received their astronaut wings in 2005.
Astronaut: where does it go from here?
The definition of “astronaut” has always been somewhat guarded.
Weitekamp explains that, with the advent of the shuttle program that started operations in 1981, NASA established two tracks for space travelers: pilot astronauts, which rose in the ranks through military training, and a newer mission specialist track that focused more on research.
A third category, payload specialist, was added to cover people flying on specific missions for specific tasks. The STS-9 mission in 1983 flew the first two payload specialists.
“The astronauts have kind of carefully guarded the word astronauts for a long time as something designated, a specialized kind of work,” Weitekamp says. “From the chatter that I've seen on social media, they seem rather pleased with the distinction that the FAA is making to keep astronauts as a rather rarefied job description.”
But that doesn’t mean those astronauts don’t want people coming to space. Leland Melvin, who flew on two space shuttle missions, told Inverse last month that he’s glad more people will be able to experience what’s known as the “overview effect.” This shift takes place when astronauts witness the Earth from a distance and understand how small it is.
“The more people that can get that, I think there will be less fighting on the planet, because you see that we're all in this together,” Melvin said.
The definition could “certainly” tighten further, Weitekamp says. After all, while it may have been impressive to fly on a plane 100 years ago, today it’s so commonplace there’s no special definition for plane passengers.
But as 82-year-old Wally Funk stepped out of the first Blue Origin crewed flight, beaming ear to ear, it’s unlikely that terminology will make her trip any less unforgettable.
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