MYSTERY WIRE — As more companies start selling tickets to space, a question looms: Who gets to call themselves an astronaut?
It’s already a complicated issue and about to get more so as billionaires snap up seats in space capsules and even entire flights for themselves and their entourages.
Astronauts? Amateur astronauts? Space tourists? Space sightseers? Rocket riders? Or as the Russians have said for decades, spaceflight participants?
NASA’s new boss Bill Nelson doesn’t consider himself an astronaut even though he spent six days orbiting Earth in 1986 aboard space shuttle Columbia _ as a congressman.
“I reserve that term for my professional colleagues,” Nelson recently told The Associated Press.
There’s something enchanting about the word: Astronaut comes from the Greek words for star and sailor. And swashbuckling images of “The Right Stuff” and NASA’s original Mercury 7 astronauts make for great marketing.
Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, is already calling its future clients “astronauts.” It’s auctioning off one seat on its first spaceflight with people on board, targeted for July. NASA even has a new acronym: PAM for Private Astronaut Mission.
But what about passengers who are along for the ride, like the Russian actress and movie director who will fly to the space station in October?
Or Japan’s moonstruck billionaire who will follow them from Kazakhstan in December with his production assistant tagging along to document everything? In each case, a professional cosmonaut will be in charge of the Soyuz capsule.
SpaceX’s high tech capsules are completely automated, as are Blue Origin’s. So should wealthy riders and their guests be called astronauts even if they learn the ropes in case they need to intervene in an emergency?
Perhaps even more important, where does space begin?
The Federal Aviation Administration limits its commercial astronaut wings to flight crews. It’s awarded seven so far, most to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic staff. The minimum altitude is 50 miles (80 kilometers).
Others define space as beginning at an even 100 kilometers, or 62 miles above sea level.
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 resented sharing the job title.