|When Is An Astronaut Not An Astronaut?|
|Written by Jeff Krukin|
|Friday, 19 March 2010|
In yesterday's Senate hearing about commercial spaceflight, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation made it clear that each feel they have the responsibility, authority, and expertise to regulate the safety of commercial transportation of astronauts. As the hearing progressed it once again became obvious that our old terms like "astronaut" may not be suited to the debate.
As I wrote in "Do NASA And NewSpace Need Destinations and Deadlines?" we must be careful with using old terms in new contexts. In the case of the issues discussed at the commercial spaceflight hearing, does "astronaut" help us frame the conversation? That word is generally understood to refer to NASA's corp of astronauts, yet even here the word has been insufficient since the dawn of the space shuttle program because the astronaut in the pilot seat receives very different training from the astronaut who is a mission or payload specialist.
Now that companies like XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic will soon be carrying passengers into space on commercial sub-orbital vehicles, and companies like SpaceX will eventually carry passengers to orbital destinations, is "astronaut" the right word to describe these people who will not receive anything like the training provided by NASA?
If we're going to intelligently decide who will regulate the safety of commercial spaceflight to orbital destinations, let's begin with the understanding that a person sitting in the seat of a commercial space vehicle is a "passenger" regardless of whether he or she is a NASA "astronaut" or mission specialist, a corporate scientist, a university graduate student, or me. Do we need different agencies developing and enforcing different safety regulations for all these people?
If we do, I can only imagine the difficulties we'll face when Dorothy wants to bring Toto with her to the Bigelow Aerospace-built New Kansas orbiting hotel.
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