Astronauts: History and Exploring Outer Space
Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

Astronauts: History and Exploring Outer Space

The Meaning of Astronaut

Astronauts, derived from Greek words meaning “star” and “navigator,” are individuals who have embarked on journeys into outer space. In the Western context, the term “astronaut” is used to refer to space travelers from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. On the other hand, individuals from the former Soviet Union and later Russia who venture into space are known as cosmonauts, a word originating from the Greek words for “cosmos” and “sailor.”

Interestingly, in Russia, the term cosmonaut is used to describe space travelers from all countries. Moreover, Chinese astronauts are called taikonauts in the West, originating from the Chinese word for “space” and the Greek word for “navigator.” However, in China, the term yuhangyuan, meaning “space traveler,” is used to refer to their astronauts.

History and Highlights of Space Travel

As of 2022, a total of 587 people from 41 countries have journeyed into the Earth’s orbit. Among these astronauts, 518 were men, while 69 were women.

Time Spent in Space

The record for the longest time spent in space on a single mission goes to cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who spent 438 days aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1994-1995. The individual with the most cumulative time spent in space is cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, with an impressive 878 days across one mission to Mir and four missions to the International Space Station.

Youngest and Oldest Astronauts

The youngest person to venture into space was Oliver Damon, who was only 18 years old when he took part in the maiden flight of Blue Origin’s suborbital spacecraft New Shepard in 2021. On the other hand, the oldest astronaut to reach space was William Shatner, who achieved this feat at the age of 90 during the second New Shepard flight in 2021.

Astronaut Fatalities

Regrettably, a total of 21 astronauts have lost their lives during spaceflight activities. Among them, four were Russian cosmonauts, and 17 were American astronauts. These tragic incidents occurred during various space missions, including the first Apollo spacecraft ground test in January 1967, re-entry accidents of Soyuz vehicles in April 1967 and June 1971, the Challenger space shuttle explosion in January 1986, and the Columbia space shuttle breakup during re-entry in February 2003.

The Pioneers: Alan Shepard and Yuri Gagarin

The first seven American astronauts, selected for Project Mercury in April 1959, included notable names such as L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., Virgil (“Gus”) Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., and Alan B. Shepard, Jr. Alan Shepard made history as the first American astronaut in space on May 5, 1961, with a brief suborbital flight. John Glenn followed suit, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.

Yuri Gagarin, one of the 20 Soviet Air Force pilots selected for astronaut training in February 1960, became the first human in space on April 12, 1961, with a one-orbit flight.

Space Exploration Beyond Borders

In 1997, China selected 12 military test pilots for its first group of taikonaut trainees, all of whom were men. The first Chinese taikonaut, Yang Liwei, embarked on a 14-orbit flight aboard Shenzhou 5 in October 2003.

India also joined the League of space explorers, selecting four astronauts, all pilots from the Indian Air Force, for the Gaganyaan program. The first crewed flight under this program was scheduled for 2024. These astronauts received part of their training in Russia in early 2020 and the remainder at the Astronaut Training Facility of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in Bengaluru.

Women in Space: Breaking Barriers

Early Astronaut Selections: No Women in the United States and Soviet Union

In the beginning, both the United States and the Soviet Union did not include women in their initial selections for astronauts. However, in the United States, a group of 13 women, known as the “Mercury 13,” underwent some testing similar to the seven Mercury astronauts. Among them was Wally Funk, who later became the oldest person in space in 2021.

Valentina Tereshkova: The First Woman in Space

In 1962, the Soviet Union took a significant step by choosing five women as cosmonaut trainees. One of these trailblazers was Valentina Tereshkova, who made history in June 1963 by becoming the first woman to journey into space.

The United States Embraces Female Astronauts

The United States did not select women for astronaut training until 1978. It was only in June 1983 that Sally Ride, the first female U.S. astronaut, took flight aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Women in China’s Space Program

In 2010, China selected two women as part of its second group of taikonaut trainees. In June 2012, Liu Yang became the first Chinese woman to fly into space aboard Shenzhou 9.

Evolving Selection Criteria: Scientists as Astronauts

Originally, the United States selected only pilots as astronauts. However, in 1965, this changed when six scientists with technical or medical degrees were chosen for astronaut training. One of these scientists, geologist Harrison (“Jack”) Schmitt, became a crew member of Apollo 17, the final Apollo mission to the Moon, in December 1972.

The Moon Missions

A total of 24 astronauts, all Americans, have journeyed to the Moon, and 12 of them had the incredible opportunity to walk on its surface. NASA launched the Artemis space program in 2017 with the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2025. This program aims to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon and other planets while making history by landing the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface. Jessica Meir may be among those pioneering astronauts.

Astronaut Training: Diverse Skill Sets

Astronaut training has evolved over the years to accommodate various mission requirements. Initially, most U.S. astronauts were test pilots, selected for their ability to handle high-stress situations rather than their piloting skills. With the introduction of the space shuttle in 1978, NASA began selecting two types of individuals as astronaut candidates. One group required extensive flying experience in jet aircraft to serve as shuttle pilots and mission commanders. The second group, known as mission specialist astronauts, included individuals with advanced scientific, medical, or engineering backgrounds. These individuals were trained to operate shuttle or space station systems and conduct payload and experimental activities, including extravehicular activities (spacewalks).

The Role of Payload Specialists

A third category of individuals who went into space on the shuttle was the payload specialists. Unlike career astronauts, they did not undergo formal astronaut selection or training. Instead, payload specialists were chosen based on their familiarity with specific experiments or payload activities. Some notable payload specialists included members of Congress who flew aboard the space shuttle in the 1980s and teacher Christa McAuliffe, who tragically served as a “teacher in space” payload specialist on the ill-fated Challenger mission.

Becoming an Astronaut: Eligibility and Application

Aspiring astronauts can come from civilian or military backgrounds and must possess a college degree in engineering, life science, physical science, mathematics, or education (for mission specialist candidates). Both men and women are eligible to apply as either pilot or mission specialist candidates. To join the ranks of NASA astronauts, candidates must undergo a rigorous screening process, including personal interviews, medical evaluations, and orientation to the space program. NASA looks for team players who are highly skilled generalists, yet possess individuality and self-reliance. The average age of selected astronaut candidates has typically been in the mid-30s, with specific height requirements for eligibility.

Intense Training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Once selected, astronaut candidates undergo an intense one-to-two-year training program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. They receive comprehensive training in various areas, including shuttle and space station systems, guidance and navigation, orbital dynamics, and materials processing. Candidates also delve into subjects like mathematics, geology, meteorology, oceanography, astronomy, and physics. Survival skills, scuba diving, space suits, and weightlessness training are also part of the curriculum. After successfully completing the training, candidates are designated as NASA career astronauts.

Preparing for Space Missions

After being assigned to a specific mission, astronauts train with their crew members for several months, preparing for the specific activities of their spaceflight. Depending on the mission, additional training, such as learning Russian for long-duration missions on the International Space Station (ISS), may be necessary. They use simulators and other equipment to familiarize themselves with the planned mission activities and to handle simulated emergencies and deviations from normal operations.

Evolving Roles: Pilot Astronauts and Mission Specialists

With the end of the space shuttle program and the emergence of long-duration missions on the ISS, the distinction between pilot astronauts and mission specialists has blurred. Astronauts from either background are now candidates for assignment to a station mission. Between spaceflight assignments, astronauts take on various tasks within NASA, ranging from mission control communicators to senior management roles.

Cosmonaut Training in Russia

The Russian space program has traditionally categorized cosmonauts into two groups: mission commanders (usually pilots) and flight engineers. Like NASA astronauts, cosmonaut candidates must undergo extensive physical examinations to assess their capability for long-duration flights. Training at the Yury Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia, spans two years of general spaceflight topics before candidates are designated as cosmonauts. Subsequent training on spaceflight hardware can take up to two more years. Cosmonauts are then assigned to specific missions, requiring additional years of training before launch. Russian training has historically emphasized general spaceflight and problem-solving skills, especially for extended stays in space.

International Astronaut Selection and Training

Countries with launch capabilities, such as the United States, Russia, and China, have specific astronaut training programs. Additionally, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada have programs for the selection and training of government-sponsored astronauts similar to NASA’s. Individuals selected by other countries for space missions may participate in the U.S. or Russian astronaut training programs or receive specialized training in Europe, Japan, or Canada, particularly for missions to the ISS.

Private Citizens in Space: Spaceflight Participants and “Space Tourists”

A handful of individuals have had the unique opportunity to travel into space as private citizens. Some of these space travelers were sponsored by their employers, such as Japanese television journalist Akiyama Toyohiro, who reported from the Mir space station in December 1990.

Others, like American entrepreneur Dennis Tito, South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth, American businessman Gregory Olsen, Iranian-born American engineer Anousheh Ansari, Hungarian-born American computer software executive Charles Simonyi, British-born American computer game developer Richard Garriott, and Canadian performer Guy Laliberté, used their personal resources to finance the multimillion-dollar cost of their space voyages. These adventurous individuals are referred to as “spaceflight participants” or more commonly known as “space tourists.”

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