Who is an Astronaut? Space Jobs in the Era of Frequent Space Travel

The frequency of space travel requires us to define and refer with greater precision the jobs needed in space over the following decades.

Audience looking at a gigantic 30 feet high Earth model in a theatre.
“Who is an Astronaut?“ by Monica Hernandez. 2022.

A new era for human spaceflight is already underway. Crewed missions are increasing in frequency worldwide, both government and civilian. The financing of research and development for private space stations is also ramping up. We’re days away from the Axiom-1 launch from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station onboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. This historic mission is the first managed and financed entirely by a company from beginning to end. So, why is the fast-growing commercial space industry still using the term ‘astronauts’?

I briefly wrote about the future of career astronauts [or cosmonauts] for Spanish-speaking audiences in 2021. It caused great debate on LinkedIn among several space professionals, which is always a good sign to revisit the subject. Some of the readers' responses about this topic differed significantly. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the nuances, but I’d like to share some of them for your reference.

One of the readers explained,

“The single term or word of ‘astronaut’ or ‘cosmonaut’ reflects the (sad) reality of our times, where space travel is so difficult and unusual, that doing so is still synonymous with a unique and special dedication and vocation. However, in the future, when traveling to space is as common as traveling by plane and the destination is not the way, but to other worlds, we will realize that calling someone an astronaut just because they get on a spaceship is like calling anyone who gets on a plane an aviator. Just as calling someone who makes a simulation of a space trip ‘analog astronaut’ is like calling an ‘analog pilot’ who plays many flight simulators on his console or computer.”

Another perspective,

In my opinion, the future astronauts will be mostly tourists. Ocean navigation was for centuries an exclusivity of trained personnel. Of “sailors”. The first passenger cruise ship in the modern era, the Lady Mary Wood, arrived with the arrival of the Steamer. And from there, there were no longer only sailors, but also tourists. Until the twentieth century, it was a pleasure for elites, but 50 years later, it became popular to the rhythm of the appearance of more cruise ships. Hopefully, the same thing will happen but leveraged x Moore’s law. We’re seeing it with SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, for example.”