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.)