Astronauts vs. Cosmonauts

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Difference between Astronauts and Cosmonauts

The words "astronaut" and "cosmonaut" mean essentially the same thing, yet there remain enough cultural connotations to almost make them seemingly distinct professions. In this comparison article we examine the differences as well as similarities of both.

Astronauts
Cosmonauts

Definition

Astronauts and cosmonauts are personnel trained to become part of a space flight program. These personnel are tasked with commanding or piloting spacecraft, or servicing as crew members. The terms have traditionally been used in reference to professionally trained personnel, although they have now come to mean practically anyone who goes into space, including scientists and even politicians. More recently, the introduction of the “space tourism” concept has made it possible for anyone with the money to spend to "become an astronaut".

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The word "astronaut" comes from the Greek words for "star" and "sailor", ástron and nautes respectively. The word in the form it is now used was first mentioned "The Death's Head Meteor", a short story written by Neil R. Jones published in 1930. It is commonly believed that the word was inspired by the term "aeronaut", which is an older term used in reference to air traveler such as balloonists.

The present NASA definition is that of a crew member on-board a NASA spacecraft that any orbit the Earth orbit or go into space. NASA also uses the term astronaut in reference to members of its Astronaut Corporations, a usage that it shares with the European Space Agency.

The term "cosmonaut" was used by the Russian Federal Space Agency and its predecessors in reference to personnel that perform tasks outside the Earth's atmosphere. The word itself comes from the Russian words for "space", kosmos, and the Greek "nautes", which means "sailor".

Notable Figures

Among the most notable astronauts in history is Alan Shepard, who was the first American in space. He was not the first person in space however, having been beaten to the honor by a cosmonaut only a few weeks earlier. Other notable astronauts were the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, and Dr. Mae Jemison, who was the first African American woman in space.

It is a cosmonaut who has the honor of being the first person in space: Yuri Gagarin. Flying into space on April 12, 1961, Gagarin managed to beat out American astronaut Alan Shepard, who made his space debut on May 5, 1961. And while Sally Ride made it to space in 1983, a cosmonaut named Valentina Tereshkova achieved the same honor for Russia 20 years earlier in 1963. Other cosmonauts of note are Alexei Leonov, the first person to perform a spacewalk, and Valeri Polyakov, who all told spent almost two years in space on a single mission.

Similarities and Differences

Astronaut

  • Personnel trained to become part of a space flight program
  • Tasked with commanding or piloting spacecraft, or servicing as crew members

Cosmonaut

  • Personnel trained to become part of a space flight program
  • Term used by the Russian Federal Space Agency for personnel that perform tasks outside the Earth's atmosphere

Which term describes space tourists?
  • Astronauts
  • Cosmonauts
 
 

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