Who is an astronaut?

Space Science

FILE – In this Jan. 11, 1961 file photo, Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn reaches for controls inside a Mercury capsule procedures trainer as he shows how the first U.S. astronaut will ride through space during a demonstration at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Research Center in Langley Field, Va. In 2021, as more companies start selling tickets to space and the cosmos opens for travel like never before, a question looms above all others. Who gets to call themselves an astronaut? (AP Photo/File)

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.

In this Monday, March 29, 2021 photo provided by SpaceX, from left, Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski pose for a photo on the SpaceX launch tower at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. 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? (SpaceX via AP, File)

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?

This undated illustration provided by Blue Origin shows the capsule that the company aims to take tourists into space. Jeff Bezos’ rocket company is already calling its future clients “astronauts.” One seat is up for grabs on the New Shepard rocket’s debut passenger flight scheduled for July 2021; an online auction is underway. (Blue Origin via AP)

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.

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