Category Archives: Space

Should we change the meaning of astronaut?

I met an astronaut once, and it wasn’t Richard Branson.

Don’t Panic

It was Bernard Harris who flew on the space shuttle twice. He spent over 400 hours in space, performing at least one space walk. That’s an astronaut.

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow Buzz Aldrin, second man on the Moon and namesake for Buzz Lightyear. That’s an astronaut.

Hell, Chris Hadfield, Canada’s most famous astronaut (supplanting Roberta Bondar), is all over social media. You may remember a music video that he made from the ISS. That’s an astronaut.

Richard Branson went on a joy ride. He went up on a rocket plane, experienced weightlessness for a few minutes ,and saw the curvature of the Earth.

Does that make him an astronaut?

Depends who you ask.

The US FAA has an official definition of space as beginning 50 miles above the surface of the Earth.This is shared by NASA. Branson went 53 miles up.

But the rest of the world (ESA, etc) has a different definition, and it’s stricter. They say that you’re not an astronaut unless you’ve crossed the Kármán line, 62 miles up. Branson didn’t make it by the world standard, but did by the American. Branson was quick to claim his “astronaut’s wings” upon returning, Perhaps he was afraid someone would deny him them if he waited a day or two.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin flight will go higher, and they’re getting snitty about Branson being called an astronaut.

Pissed-off billionaires aside, let’s accept that the term astronaut, which until now has been reserved for people who work above the Earth’s atmosphere and not tourists, is going to get watered down to the point of meaninglessness.

We need to redefine the term Astronaut*. Perhaps there should be levels of astronaut, maybe something like this:

Two classifications, one each for those who are working for a space agency and for those who aren’t.

Government space agency:
Astronaut-Explorers – The Chuck Yeagers, Mercury Seven, early Cosmonauts
Deep Space Astronaut – Anyone who’s orbited the Moon or further
Command Astronaut – someone who’s commanded a space mission
Specialists Astronaut – Those who are taken up on a ship to perform a task related to that ship’s cargo (shuttle payload missions, if something like that returns)
Orbital Astronaut – those who’ve been to ISS as mission specialists but been passengers in the transit from Earth to ISS

Non-governmental agency:
Passenger Astronaut – for future use, for employees of a company working in outer space or couriers to such
Tourist Astronaut – For the billionaires and eventually the millionaires.

Maybe this is just something that’s going to fall by the wayside. Maybe it isn’t worth the effort to save the prestige of a word.

It used to be that being a car owner was a huge status symbol. Even today, being a private pilot still has a certain cache. Maybe someday soon we’ll have met an astronaut or be related to one, or even be one.

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*I've written a story that hopefully you'll all be able to read by the end of 2022. In it, the space tourism industry has forced the governmental space agencies to change the definition of astronaut so many times that governmental astronauts are having a hard time qualifying for the wings (this is not a plot point, just a passing fact, as one of the characters needs to do a skills upgrade before being announced for a mission.)

Is Fossil Fuel the Great Filter?

There’s this idea, called the great filter, that is used to explain why we haven’t found alien civilizations yet. The basics are this: The universe has existed long enough for any early-developing intelligent species to have populated the galaxy by now, even with slower than light technology.

Basically, we could almost do it with our level of tech, and can see the engineering challenges that would be needed to make it practical. It’d take thousands of years, but that’s nothing on the galactic scale.

It’s doable.

There’s also this idea that we’re kind of late to develop in the galactic time scale, so someone should have beaten us to it. The fact that no one apparently has suggests that there’s a ‘great filter’ an insurmountable problem that any growing civilization must face and can not overcome. (This video gives a good overview)

There have been many candidates put forward as to what that great filter could be – the technology to build nuclear weapons, pandemics gaining access to whole populations thanks to transportation efficiencies, some kind of genetic lethargy, even the Internet’s ability to destroy logical/scientific progress.

Here’s a candidate that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Maybe the great filter is the absence or abuse of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a limited resource. Technically they are renewable, but not on our time scale. To have fossil fuels, a planet has to be of a certain age, sustained multiple periods of life and had the geological process necessary to develop them.

Perhaps early Civilizations were too early and there weren’t fossil fuels available for them to use to industrialize. Perhaps, like us, these Civilizations squandered their fossil fuels on immediate needs instead of thinking long term for the greater good of their species.

What role does fossil fuel have on the development of an interplanetary civilization? Our industrial revolution was driven by the use and adaptation of fossil fuels to industrial production. Coal, the first fossil fuel utilized on a massive scale, launched the revolution, with oil and gas coming along soon after to make even better energy sources for the production of fidget spinners and other much needed plastics (sarcasm kids). Prior to that, transport had to be done in slower and smaller ships, reducing the capability of factories to produce goods, thus slowing the growth of economies, and reducing economies of scale. Things were more expensive and innovation was slower.

Oil, along with natural gas and the various industries that can produce oil-based products added not only greater speed to the whole economic cycle, but allowed for greater possibilities -air transport became feasible, space travel became achievable. But what happens when the fossil fuels are gone?

That’s my idea of the great filter. Civilizations as a whole discover and use up their fossil fuels before they achieve interstellar travel. Not that fossil fuels would take them there, but that fossil fuels are a step on the path, a step that many civilizations either don’t have access to or fall off of.

To use an analogy that might be too on point, think of civilization as a rocket ship. Before fossil fuels, we could build the ship, but only dream of launching it. With fossil fuels applied, our economy can now lift off and make orbit. But to get to greater heights, we need something better than fossil fuels. We may not discover that answer before fossil fuels run out, plummeting us back to the ground and breaking us for a long time if not permanently.