Are Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and their clients real astronauts?

Astronautical Evolution, issue 159

When is an astronaut an astronaut?

Richard Branson and his crew as VSS Unity reached space, 11 July 2021. (Virgin Galactic)

Basically, no. They’re much more important than that.

I agree with Scott Manley, though he didn’t put it in exactly this way: “astronaut” (and its translations into various languages) is a job description for a government official. Typically they have flown in space, but some astronauts are still in training, not yet having flown, and some – such as Roger Chaffee, or Valentin Bondarenko (see James Oberg, Uncovering Soviet Disasters, ch.10) – died before they were due to fly.

As for Bezos and Branson and their clients: they are no more astronauts than I (having flown on a jet airliner) am an aeronaut.

In the present phase of development they are far more important than astronauts: they are space travellers.

From this point on, our development into a spacefaring civilisation is not something that can be done by astronauts – or cosmonauts, or hángtiān yuán (航天员, “navigating space personnel”).

Jeff Bezos and his crew as the New Shepard capsule reached space, 20 July 2021. (Blue Origin)

Certainly the achievements of these professional government explorers and scientists were indispensable to get the ball rolling. These people, together with the army of engineers on the ground supporting them, pioneered the basic technologies of manned spaceflight (pedants may wish to note that “manned” in this context is non-gender-specific). But it’s now time to move on from that: with those technologies in hand, it’s time (arguably way past time) to start using those technologies for economically meaningful activities: space tourism, and space mining and manufacturing.

The human settlement of space will require more than astronauts. It will need entrepreneurs and engineers and designers and artists and nutritionists and microbiologists and managers and all sorts of people – all professional in their own way, but in jobs that are as applicable to life on Earth as off it. They will not be astronauts; they will simply travel to and through space for the purposes of their normal work and leisure activities.

The time for space travellers limited to a specialist elite – a sort of monastic chivalric order to which only the best of the best can belong – is over. If we are going to develop further, space must now be opened up for the mass of people who can drive forward the exponential growth of economic activities off Earth. This is where Messrs Branson and Bezos come in – or it would be, if only they weren’t lagging so woefully far behind Mr Musk. Hopefully their suborbital rides can still find a market for a few years, until the ticket price for orbital spaceflight comes down by about two orders of magnitude.

Branson’s and Bezos’s flights would have been amazing, had they taken place fifteen years ago. But times have moved on, and now SpaceX is regularly launching NASA astronauts into orbit, with non-astronaut space passengers due to follow them very soon (see “The bell of freedom rings in space” by Robert Zimmerman).

I look forward to the day (as I did in this post from a couple of years ago) when regular space travellers, whether flying for work or for leisure, vastly outnumber professional astronauts.

How high is space space?

A MiG-25PU at MACS-1999 in Zhukovski. (Roman Bazalevski)

The debate about whether 100 km or 50 miles is the true boundary of space is sterile. Let’s put this in context: the internationally recognised absolute altitude record for flight by an air-breathing aeroplane is 37.65 km, by MiG OKB (Опытное конструкторское бюро: Experimental Design Bureau) chief test pilot Aleksandr Vasilyevich Fedotov on 31 August 1977 at Podmoskovnoye in the USSR. The aircraft was a MiG-25RB with an improved engine.

37.65 km (123,520 feet; 23.39 miles): even the NASA-supported space boundary of 50 miles is more than double that altitude.

Balloons can actually sneak up a bit higher: the current record appears to have been set by Alan Eustace in the StratEx mission of the Paragon Space Development Corporation on 24 October 2014 in a helium balloon: his maximum altitude was 41.424 km (135,906 feet; 25.74 miles). Again, this is little more than half of the 50 miles criterion. The atmosphere is, as all space travellers know, extraordinarily thin.

When only a rocket-propelled vehicle has any hope of getting up there, let’s have no more nonsense about 50 miles / 80 km not being “proper” space.

This post is reblogged from the Astronautical Evolution website.

Author: Astronist

For my philosophy of astronautical evolution, see my main website.

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