All of this has renewed debate about who counts as an astronaut and who doesn’t. Most people would agree that the professional astronauts who work for NASA are astronauts. But what about NASA administrator Bill Nelson, who flew to space in 1986 as a member of Congress and has since referred to himself as an astronaut? And what about Bezos, who says he wants to try out his own Blue Origin spacecraft someday? Do you have to reach orbit to become an astronaut, or is simply crossing the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space enough to earn the title?
In the American consciousness, astronauts are seen as almost superhuman, with “the right stuff,” a secret-sauce set of qualities that distinguishes them from everyone else. The wealthy astronauts-to-be have promised they aren’t just going to look out the window; they will donate money from raffles and auctions and help do research on the ISS. But if astronauts become synonymous with billionaires, our lofty view of them is bound to come back down to Earth.
The definition of astronaut has always been a little complicated. In 1958, when NASA was brand-new, the agency wasn’t sure what to call the people it would soon send to space. Officials gathered for brainstorms, a process that involved consulting dictionaries and thesauri and scribbling ideas on a blackboard. “Somebody said ‘spaceman’ and someone else said ‘superman’ and still another said ‘space pilot,’” wrote Allen Gamble, a NASA psychologist, in an essay in 1971. The group liked Mercury, for the mythological messenger of the gods, but it turned out that NASA headquarters had already claimed it as the name of the country’s first spaceflight effort. When they came across aeronaut, the term for hot-air ballooners and other high-flyers, they decided to go with astronaut, which had previously appeared in science-fiction literature.
NASA’s early astronauts were military test pilots. After a few moon landings, the agency started flying scientists alongside them. In the 1980s, with the Apollo days over and the era of the space shuttle just beginning, NASA introduced two new kinds of astronauts: mission specialists, astronauts who performed experiments and spacewalks but who weren’t trained to steer the ship, and payload specialists, who were chosen from academia or industry to conduct specific research in space and received far less training than the other classes. At first, some astronauts bristled at these new categories, particularly payload specialists. “There was a reluctance to see them as full-fledged astronauts,” Alan Ladwig, a former NASA program manager and the author of See You In Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight, told me. But they went along with it and smiled for the cameras, reserving their opinions about the politicians who wanted to try it out, and fretting privately about the teacher who was picked as the first “ordinary citizen” to go.