What do we call space travelers?

The SpaceX Inspiration4 all-civilian flight landed this past weekend and there’s been a lot of speculation as to what we should be calling these space tourists now and in the future. We can’t call civilian space travelers “tourists” forever, because tourism will not be the only reason why civilians travel to space. If we’re lucky, these early space flights will be the start of even more civilian trips into space for science, exploration, and general business.

But what do we call these civilian space travelers?

A couple names have come to the forefront of this debate, including: Amateur Space Traveler and Astronaut/Cosmonaut.

I heard someone propose “Amateur Space Traveler” in the news last week as a potential name for civilian space travelers. Those who support this name use the first definition of the noun, amateur, which is: one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession. However, the second definition is truly what most people associate with that term: one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science[1].

Some people want to call them “Astronauts”, same as the few people who earned the lofty title in NASA. As you can imagine, there’s push-back against this because NASA already uses the title for the few Astronauts they send up to space. There’s a fear that as more people go into space and become “Astronauts”, it will diminish the historic achievements made in the past by the early pioneers of space.

Arguments for Astronaut or Cosmonaut

I’ve already made my opinion clear about that terrible idea of calling future space travelers amateurs. So, for the moment, let’s focus on why “Astronaut” and “Cosmonaut” are appropriate names.

Purely based on the definition and origin of the names, both are appropriate. Astronaut is the combination of 2 Greek words: Astron, meaning star, and -naut[es] meaning sailor or traveler. Similarly, Cosmonaut is a combination of 2 Greek words: kosmos, meaning world or universe, and -naut[es] meaning sailor or traveler.

Just because NASA and the Soviet Union invented the words and used them for over 60 years doesn’t give them a monopoly on the word or title. For starters, you can’t patent a word. This has been the case for decades and everyone knows it, but let’s give this idea the benefit of the doubt… and then shoot it down.

Patent law gives the inventor a 20-year monopoly, which has long-sense passed. It could be argued that the word can be trademarked, but that can only happen if it identifies with the organization or product. Fortunately, there are certain words which cannot be registered like: names & titles, or generic terms (like astronaut)[2].

We should also consider the likelihood we’re going to see classically employed astronauts achieve historic goals in the future. Let’s not kid ourselves here, there’s no future in manned space exploration and exploitation with the existing government-controlled space agencies.

Yes, I just pointed out the increasingly obsolete elephant in the room. Come fight me NASA!

Better yet, prove me wrong[3].

Anyways, the fact remains that the only publicly announced manned project NASA has in its sights is a vague goal to land humans on Mars by the 2030s. Aside from NASA’s pie-in-the-sky goal, no other space agency has anything planned. Although, does anyone outside of China know what the Chinese are planning[4]?

Which should we use: Astronaut or Cosmonaut?

While both Astronaut and Cosmonaut are correct terms to use, we can’t use both names. That’ll cause more confusion in the long run. So, what do most people think of when they think about space travelers or people in space? To answer this question, I asked the greatest tool to find connected indexed information… Google.

  • What are travelers in space called?
  • What is a space worker called?
  • What is a space tourist called?

I ran several Google searches asking variations of the above questions, and the results all point to the same answer: Astronaut.

Other Names for Space Travelers

I think Astronaut sounds appropriate, but I’d like to propose a few potential names for future space travelers: Spacers, Private Astronauts, Citizen Space Travelers, or Space Citizens. I have 2 preferences out of these names, and will describe the reasons why I think they’re good.

I like the term “Space Citizen” because space is so vast, people will need to live in space no matter what their profession is. The minimum amount of time it takes to get anywhere is counted in days, and that’s just to reach a destination near Earth’s orbit. It will take months, maybe even a year, to reach destinations further out in the Sol system. These space workers probably won’t have close associations weighing them down to the planet. Nor does it make sense for these citizens to maintain homes on Earth either, unless they left behind family[5].

If we’re lucky, people will eventually be born in space, and probably to multi-national parents. Think of the citizenship complications that will cause.

I have a strong preference for the term “Spacer”, and think it has a greater likelihood of being used in the future, even over “Astronaut”.

  1. It’s simple. The word can be said in 2 syllables and is easier to use in a sentence, and it can’t be acronymized all by itself.
  2. It has universality (pun sort-of intended). People are Spacers if they live and work in space, no matter what they do. They can be a: space miner, engineer on a spaceship, doctor in a medbay, security officer on a ship or station, and even a child whose family lives in space. “Spacer” has the quality of being appropriate for all those roles.
  3. I think people who live in space will be called “Spacers” collectively. Their identities may be further defined by their profession, but not likely as a citizen of the nation they were born to.
  4. It sounds cool! I love science fiction and can’t deny the appeal the term “Spacer” has when I think of people living and working in space.

***

What should we call future space travelers? “Astronaut” and “Cosmonaut” are technically correct, but may be outdated. “Private Astronaut” seems like applying a band-aid to answer the question. I think “Spacer”, or some other designation inspired by science fiction, may be the best option now and in the future.

I don’t know what we’ll end up calling them, but I do know it won’t matter if we don’t get our act together.

In the 1960s, we were making rapid advances in space technology and engineering. We were making so many new innovations, it seemed like anything was possible. One of the most realistic science fiction books published around that time, 2001: A Space Odyssey, predicted that we’d have several things by the new millennium. We should have had a massive space station in orbit, an outpost on the Moon, and the ability to travel between the planets.

Those developments in that science fiction novel were very achievable and should have been realized by the 21st century, but history or politics had different plans. We can’t let that happen again.

Since the established space programs are at the mercy of fickle governments, which lack the will needed to reliably follow through with large-scale projects, we need private enterprises to take the reins.

I’m willing to accept the risk of letting private enterprises take the lead into space, if it results in greater technological developments and exploration into space. Especially, since such advances can only help ensure the overall survival of our species.


[1] Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Amateur. Retrieved from Merriam-Webster Dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/amateur

[2] There are other phrases or words that cannot be trademarked, but I only focused on those relevant to this subject.

[3] Space fight: Russia, please stay out of this fight. I prefer my tea to be free of radioactive ingredients.

[4] I fear that only a national embarrassment or a “Sputnik moment”, like China establishing a permanent outpost on the Moon, will motivate the United States government to invest the time, money, and resources toward projects in space.

[5] Earth-based families: For the purpose of this article, let’s not consider the statistical fact that most long-distance relationships fail. Let’s assume that all partners will remain true to their loved ones and ignore all other sexual and emotional prospects that physically manifest, both on Earth and in space.

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