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Astronauts Vs. Cosmonauts

February 5, 2018


Whenever I talk about manned space exploration here on SkyFeed, I try to be careful about the words I use.


A lot of the time, I can’t describe the people on these missions as just “astronauts,” because the Russian crew members are actually called cosmonauts.


Which, I know, is kind of weird. I mean, astronauts and cosmonauts have the same job. And it’s not like we call Russian doctors, French chemists,  or Japanese biologists by a different name, right? So why are space travelers different?


The answer has a lot to do with the history of the words astronaut and cosmonaut, the early days of the space program, and, of course - politics. The words “astronaut” and “cosmonaut” both have their roots in Ancient Greek, and essentially mean the same thing: The prefix “astro” comes from the Ancient Greek word astron, which means “stars;” that’s why we have words like “astronomy” and “astrophysics.”


The prefix “cosmo,” on the other hand, comes from the word cosmos, for “universe.” And then the suffix “naut” comes from the word nautis, which means “sailor;” that’s why it’s in words like “nautical.”


So an astronaut is a star sailor, and a cosmonaut is a universe sailor.


Back in 1959, NASA was trying to decide on a name for the people they’d be sending to space, and both of these words were on their list. “Astronaut” was first used as a scientific term in a 1929 issue of the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, in an article that discussed some of the challenges a hypothetical space traveller might face.


Lots of people liked “astronaut,” including Robert Gilruth, who led Project Mercury, the first manned space program in the US, and would go on to run NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center.


But others were in favor of using “cosmonaut” instead, like Hugh Dryden, NASA’s deputy administrator at the time. He argued that we were really exploring the cosmos in general, not specifically the stars.


However in the end, they decided to go with astronaut.


Around the same time, the Soviets were thinking about names for their space explorers. During the space race, it helped to have an easy way to distinguish between Americans and Soviets who were trained to go to space.


So even though the NASA-declared English word for space travelers was astronaut, news outlets just used the word “cosmonaut” whenever they were talking about the Soviet space program.


Eventually, other manned space programs started up, and now there are space travelers from lots of countries. Most of the major space agencies, like the ESA, the CSA, and JAXA, just call their space travelers “astronauts.”


But the tradition of calling Russian or Russia-affiliated space travelers “cosmonauts” never really went away.


So we still have two different words for people who do the same job.



Thank you for choosing SkyFeed! Be sure to follow my social media (Instagram: @astrolia) and subscribe to get the best of space exploration delivered to your inbox every week.


Sources: This story was originally published on SciShow Space. I am republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest in the subject. Hofmeister, Caitlin. “Why Do We Call Them Astronauts?” SciShow Space, YouTube, 10 May 2016. Web video.

Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "Astronauts Vs. Cosmonauts." SkyFeed. 5 Feb, 2018. Web article.

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