Clarifying the distinction between pioneers and tourists
One of my earliest memories is sitting on my mom's lap in our living room in Appleton, Wisconsin watching Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blast off in their Apollo V rocket. I remember asking my mom, "What is that?" she replied: "That's a rocket taking men to space, they're going to the moon."
That was it. I was hooked.
As a young man, I fantasized about launching on a rocket like Neil Armstrong, or exploring the galaxy like Captain Kirk. I’m quite certain most of you had those dreams too. Since 1961 only 700 people have ventured into the vacuum of space. But fully half of those people have done it in only the past few years.
Space travel is growing. And that's awesome.
A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with my friend, NASA Flight Director, Ron Spencer, and the subject of the growing space industry and private space flight came up. We were discussing the people going to space and I let him know in no uncertain terms that I felt anyone who flies a sub-orbital arc should not be called an astronaut.
“What about Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom?” he responded, quick to point out that the first two flights of the Mercury program didn’t reach orbit. “Finish your cheesecake!” I demanded and changed the subject quickly.
But Ron deserved an answer along with that desert. So, I will give it.
As a futurist and space enthusiast, I am continuously fascinated by the advancements in space exploration and the possibilities that lie ahead for human exploration. I’m also intrigued by the growing rate of private space companies developing plans for access to space like never before.
But a distinction between traditional astronauts and those embarking on sub-orbital flights aboard commercial space tourism vessels like Virgin Galactic's Unity 2 – set to ferry paying passengers to the edge of space this Thursday – must be made.
While these paying passengers technically cross the Karman line, the internationally recognized boundary of space, it begs the question: Should they be called astronauts?
As I said at dinner, I’ll repeat it here, my answer is an unequivocal NO.
Let me start with how I got to this distinction. Yes, I’m a futurist, but I cannot ignore the beginning days of NASA where early space exploration was forged by courageous pioneers like Alan Shepard, who paved the way for humanity's reach beyond Earth.
Not all were so fortunate. Brave men like Elliot See and Charlie Bassett lost their lives while in the middle of training for their Gemini flight in 1966. In January the following year, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed on the launch pad when their Apollo 1 capsule spontaneously burst into flames during a routine ‘plugs out’ test.
These men were part of groundbreaking missions, pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and technology. Their status as astronauts remains undisputed, primarily due to the extraordinary risks they undertook and their contributions to space exploration.
The term Astronaut, translated from the Greek meaning “Star Voyager”, has always referred to individuals engaged in space missions, either as test pilots, crew members aboard spacecraft or as participants in scientific research on space stations. Any member of those early missions would receive an Astro-pin upon returning to earth, signifying that they were now officially an astronaut.
Now, with the advent of commercial space ventures, a new category of star voyagers has emerged – private individuals – who can afford to experience the thrill of space travel in a short up-and-down trip aboard a vehicle designed for pleasure.
Virgin Galactic's "Unity II" is now heading full steam into the space tourism game with their first official flight carrying paying customers this Thursday. I’m thrilled for those passengers and would trade places with them in a New York minute.
Blue Origin has also been conducting sub-orbital flights for almost two years now. Most famously carrying James T. Kirk himself, William Shatner to the edge of space and back. Mr. Shatner was so profoundly affected by the trip that when he returned, he became a staunch environmentalist overnight.
These incredible flights allow passengers to briefly experience weightlessness and witness the awe-inspiring curvature of Earth before returning to the planet's surface.
Truly amazing. But are they astronauts?
While the technical definition of crossing the Karman line qualifies someone who passed sixty-two miles in altitude as a space traveler, the brevity and the limited scope of that journey, plus the lack of mission duties, challenges the traditional notion of what an astronaut is and should be.
One essential aspect to consider is the intent behind the journey. Traditional astronauts undergo rigorous training, are chosen for specific roles, and actively contribute to scientific research, technological advancements, or international cooperation in space missions.
In contrast, space tourists participate in these flights primarily for recreational and personal reasons, without contributing to the broader exploration goals.
Plus, any astronaut on a mission, sent by their respective governments, has been prepared for the most tragic of circumstances where they might have to assume control of the vessel should the crew lose its commander or manual control of the vehicle is required.
When the Titanic sailed for New York in April 1912, John Jacob Astor, the wealthy American business magnate, who dined on caviar and brandy, was a paying passenger. The crew, trained to give their lives for the safety of Astor and all the other passengers were Sailors. The distinction was clear, and everyone knew understood it.
That said, I have no doubt that old J. J. considered himself to be a step above the Garrison Cap-wearing boys assigned to his every whim. Maybe he would have liked to be called Commodore? We’ll never know.
Back to the point. How do we distinguish these space travelers?
Let me break it down into two categories: Tourists vs. Pioneers.
1) Tourists. People paying for a ride aboard a sub-orbital vehicle, despite crossing the Karman line, should not be considered astronauts. Space Tourist has a nice and accurate ring in my opinion.
This would acknowledge their adventurous spirit and the groundbreaking commercial space industry they support without diluting the prestige and significance of being a traditional astronaut.
Plus, they didn’t undergo rigorous training, study, or any other preparation that astronauts must go through before a mission. One might spend more time prepping for a jump from a plane than a leap into the heavens.
2) Pioneers. Anyone who ventures into orbit aboard any vehicle, private or otherwise, may indeed be labeled an astronaut but only if their mission includes some kind of service to mankind: science, exploration, education, etc, along with a higher level of risk.
For example, in September 2021, Inspiration4, the first fully civilian-crewed spaceflight carried four private citizens to space aboard a modified Falcon 9 Crew Dragon capsule. Their clear mission over the two days they were in space was to raise awareness and money for St. Jude’s Hospital as well as perform health experiments while in orbit.
In May 2023, Axiom space launched its second fully private space mission, Ax-2, to the international space station aboard a Falcon 9 Crew Dragon. The participants investigated the effects of microgravity on immune cells in the human body.
The people on board those flights were and are astronauts.
William Shatner (the sci-fi legend and Canadian treasure that he is) is not.
As space exploration enters this new era of commercial tourism, it is essential to evolve the language we use to describe the paying customers embarking on sub-orbital journeys.
Let me be clear, if invited, or by some miracle I had the money, I would absolutely go on a ride with Bezos or Branson. Hells yeah, I would. And I know for sure I would be forever changed by the experience.
But upon landing, I would also be fully aware that my quick ride up and down by no means qualified me as an astronaut. As much as I’ve wanted to be one since those early days in Appleton, sitting with my mom watching history unfold before me.
I’m all about the future, where we’re going, how to get there, the whole thing. Bring it on! But I also believe deeply in my heart that we must preserve the legacy of Armstrong, Grissom, Shepard and all those others who gave their lives for the advancement of the human race.
It’s because of those early astronauts and others who came after that we can now joyfully celebrate a new generation of space enthusiasts and the burgeoning space tourism industry. Flying on borrowed wings my take you to high places, but in the end, it was a journey made possible upon the back of another.
Ron, dinner’s on me next time.
What do you think? Should everyone who passes the Karman line automatically be referred to as an astronaut? Let me know in the comments.