First there were the test pilots — men in possession of what Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff” — who took flight in experimental aircraft. It was absurdly dangerous work with a mortality rate to match. NASA put them in capsules, presented them as Boy Scouts and called them astronauts.
Then, there were the men of Apollo who planted the American flag on the lunar surface. Astronauts were now explorers in a new way, leaving footprints in untrodden terrain.
The space shuttle program followed, and the face of the American astronaut changed. It was no longer the exclusive domain of military fighter jocks, as scientists and engineers became fused with the public’s idea of who an astronaut was. They now looked more like America — women and men of many races and vocations. They were even construction workers of a sort as they began building the International Space Station, one of the greatest engineering achievements since the Great Pyramids.
So what will it mean to be astronauts tomorrow? They will soon look almost nothing like the men who walked on the moon. NASA’s new lunar program, called Artemis, promises that moonwalkers will not all be men. And American astronauts will not necessarily even wear the “blue meatball” patch with “NASA” embroidered across it.
For would-be American space travelers, NASA is no longer the only game in town. The implications transcend the practical and reach deeply into American culture. And as with any job, the more people who do it, the less special it seems. Commercial airline pilots once held a sort of superstar status in the eyes of Americans. Pilots are no less impressive today, but quantity has diminished their prestige.
Similarly, the bravery of anyone willing to leave Earth on a rocket is unquestionable, but the exclusivity of the job will wane — slowly, certainly, but inexorably. Nongovernment employees will soon leave Earth in nongovernment launch systems from nongovernment spaceports.
“To an extent, we are inventing this as we go along,” said Christopher Ferguson, who twice commanded space shuttles as a NASA astronaut.
He added, “NASA, other space-faring nations and industry are going to have to come to terms with how non-NASA, noninternational astronauts are brought into the fold.”
A new frontier for the private sector
Mr. Ferguson trains from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. A recent day for him was typical: five hours in a launch simulation with the mission operations team. He trained alongside Sunita Williams, herself a two-time space flier and veteran of the space station.
Halfway through the session, the two swapped roles, preparing for situations that might arise on an actual mission. The balance of the day was spent planning timeline management when inserting a crew into a rocket, so that when the hatch closes, all the right things are on the inside, and all the right things are on the outside.
The difference between Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Williams is that Mr. Ferguson does not work for NASA. He works for Boeing and will fly on the first crewed mission of Starliner. Boeing and SpaceX are part of Commercial Crew, a NASA-supported program that has tasked American companies with building spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the space station. NASA has relied on Russia’s space program for launching astronauts since the last shuttle returned to Earth in 2011.
The first crewed launch of Starliner, which will carry Mr. Ferguson, may fly this year and will represent a new era of human spaceflight. Mr. Ferguson is part of a new type of astronaut corps that will work alongside NASA’s crew. If the Trump administration devotes additional funding for Artemis, its five-year program to return astronauts to the moon, it could accelerate the importance of private astronauts such as those at Boeing.
Beyond privately paid drivers on rides to the space station, other companies plan to send people to orbit and beyond in the next decade. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both could soon fly customers on suborbital trips to space.
Then there is Axiom Space, a Houston company that intends to begin building a private space station for wealthy space tourists this year. Axiom hopes to launch its first two modules in 2023. Around the same time SpaceX says it will fly Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese entrepreneur, and artists who are his guests on a private mission around the moon.
Would-be space travelers suddenly have options. And depending on whom you ask, they are every bit an astronaut as those who work for NASA.
What makes an astronaut?
Who gets to be called an astronaut is a topic that has provoked a number of disputes during the short history of human spaceflight.
The Federal Aviation Administration awards astronaut wings to anyone who flies 50 miles above the surface of Earth. NASA, however, has not always been so generous with the title.
“There are astronauts — not all of them, but some — who feel that ‘astronaut’ should be a reserved name for government employees,” Lori B. Garver, a former associate administrator of NASA, said.
She points to Charles Walker, who flew on three space shuttle missions. His official NASA biography, however, does not refer to him as an astronaut. He is listed only as “payload specialist.” A nongovernment worker, he was responsible for running highly technical experiments in space. Press kits at the time from NASA public affairs pointedly avoid the A-word when referring to Mr. Walker, and one document specifically called him a “non-astronaut.”
“To me, that Charlie Walker thing was so offensive,” Ms. Garver said. “Here was a guy who risked his life just like the rest of them. He did great things on those missions — and this was pre-Challenger disaster. The shuttle at the time was a very experimental system.”
For NASA and its affiliates in 2014, internal struggles over who gets to be called astronaut mounted when Michael Alsbury was killed during a test flight of SpaceShipTwo, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft that disintegrated at supersonic speeds.
The Astronauts Memorial Foundation refused to add Mr. Alsbury’s name to the Space Mirror Memorial, for Americans who have died in spaceflight, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Among the criteria for memorialization was a requirement that fallen astronauts had to have been on government-flown or government-sponsored spacecraft. But that requirement was added in 2006 — a response in part to the private sector beginning to tread on NASA’s turf.
The memorial committee of the foundation voted in March to change its rules, opening the door for Mr. Alsbury’s name to be added. It is perhaps a reluctant acceptance of the inevitable: that space no longer belonged only to governments, and that the expansion of humanity’s horizon is perilous to all who undertake those efforts, regardless of employer.
“If a company like Boeing were to hire people to fulfill a role like that — trained to operate a spacecraft, achieve a mission in space as part of a crew, that for me is also a professional astronaut,” said Megan McArthur, a NASA astronaut who flew into space on the shuttle Atlantis and serviced the Hubble Space Telescope.
At the same time, as more civilians travel to orbit and beyond to complete commercial or academic work, or even just fly in space as tourists, Dr. McArthur said she could see why some might not be called astronauts. She compared such voyages to her own treks as a graduate student, when she studied aboard oceanic research vessels.
“There was a crew that operated the ship and a team that conducted the science,” she explained. Though she was familiar with the boat and sailed in the sea, Dr. McArthur said she would not have called herself a professional sailor.
But it is not NASA who bestows the name, said Ms. Garver, who championed commercial space travel while at the agency. To her, calling more people “astronaut” does not diminish the job or make it less special.
“Culture will decide what becomes the definition,” she said. “And I think we have run the experiment. If you go to space, you risked your life: You are an astronaut.”