am i an astronaut After all, I’ve never been to space. In fact, the term has been the subject of much debate lately. Thanks to space tourism, commercial space organizations and initiatives, space is becoming more and more accessible to more and more people. Can all these people call themselves astronauts?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, an astronaut is a “person who takes part in a flight into space”. But this is where the first difficulties arise. Because where exactly space begins is a matter of interpretation: at the Kármán line 100 kilometers above sea level – is that the current regulation in Europe? Or rather at 50 miles (around 80 kilometers), as the Federal Aviation Administration FAA says in the USA? Thus, for example, Wally Funk would qualify after her suborbital flightto call herself an astronaut. Or isn’t it better to circumnavigate the earth for the title? But then Alan Shephard, the first American in space, would no longer be an astronaut: in 1961, on his first flight into space, he flew for just 15 minutes at an altitude of 187 kilometers – without orbiting the earth at all. Pretty complicated.
A very personal imprint
Not even the dictionaries agree: the Cambridge Dictionary defines it differently. Here, an astronaut is “a person who has been trained to travel in space.” That’s how Esa handled Matthias Maurer: He made the final selection for his astronaut class in 2008, but only started training a few years later as a substitute. When he finished his basic training in 2017, it was clear: from now on he can officially call himself an Esa astronaut. Maurer then flew into space in 2021.
My relationship to the term “astronaut”, on the other hand, is personal: my father Gerhard Thiele was selected by the German Aerospace Center in 1987 and trained there with four other people. He was an astronaut for me at the latest when I had to pack my favorite books in a moving box in 1992 to move to Houston for his training. Two of his colleagues flew into space with NASA in 1993 as payload specialists – my father trained with the meteorologist Dr. Renate Brümmer the replacement crew. Many years later, in 2000, he flew into space in a space shuttle as a fully trained mission specialist and ESA astronaut. The word “space candidate” would have been the correct term for him for many years – I’ve never heard it in everyday life.
“Space tourist” falls short
After I had passed the DLR selection tests for the “first German female astronaut” foundation myself, I still hesitated to call myself an astronaut until the end of our basic training. Fortunately, the German language offers an elegant interim solution, which I owe to the comedian Tommi Schmitt: Fastronautin.
And it can also be gendered really nicely space travel: Astronaut*in. Incidentally, on board the space station I would then be a scientific astronaut or part of the “commercial crew”, for which there is still no suitable translation in German. In any case, the outdated “space tourist” falls short of commercial space travel.
Air conditioning check
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More astronaut terms thanks to the Esa
Thanks to Esa, there are now three more terms: Five “career astronauts” were selected this week. They are joined by the first “Parastronaut”: John McFall is taking part in a feasibility study to investigate what it takes to enable people with physical disabilities to fly into space. Eleven other people form the “astronaut reserve”, who are not training for the time being, but can be renamed. So reserve astronauts, but according to ESA Director General Joseph Aschbacher “also astronauts”.
These are numerous names for what is ultimately still a very small group of people who all have one thing in common: the dream of seeing the earth from above. And ultimately, the quibbling seems a bit superfluous: Aren’t we all astronauts on spaceship Earth, on a never-ending journey through space? In this respect: (f)astronautical greetings!
Insa Thiele-Eich is a meteorologist and researches the connections between climate change and health at the University of Bonn. She has been training as a scientific astronaut for a two-week mission on the International Space Station as part of the “Die Astronautin” initiative since 2017 – and would thus be the first German woman in space. Here she writes every two weeks about space travel, climate change and the fascinating world of science.