An astronaut, cosmonaut or taikonaut is a person who travels into space, or who makes a career of doing so. The criteria for determining who has achieved human spaceflight vary. In the United States, persons who travel above an altitude of 50 miles (80 kilometers) are designated as astronauts. The FAI defines spaceflight as over 100 km. To March 3, 2003, a total of 437 humans by the US definition had spent a total of 26,320 crew-days in space including 98 crew-days of spacewalks. 431 people qualify under the FAI definition. Astronauts from at least 32 countries have gone into space.

By convention, an astronaut employed by the Russian Aviation and Space Agency or its Soviet predecessor is called a cosmonaut. "Cosmonaut" is an anglification of the Russian word kosmonavt, which in turn derives from the Greek words kosmos, meaning "universe" and nautes, meaning "sailor". One could reasonably argue that "cosmonaut" is simply the Russian language word for "astronaut", which the media on both sides have chosen not to translate this way for political reasons. On March 14, 1995 astronaut Norman Thagard became the first American to ride to space on-board a Russian launch vehicle arguably becoming the first American cosmonaut in the process.

The term taikonaut is used for astronauts from China. The term was coined in May 1998 by Chiew Lee Yih from Malaysia, who used it first in newsgroups. Almost simultaneously, Chen Lan coined it for use in the Western media based on the term "taikong" (太空 in pinyin: tai4 kong1), Chinese for space. It is however unclear how to translate the "naut" term into Chinese, and simply using the term taikongren or taikongyuan (taikong person) is problematic since that term is used already to mean space alien.

Chinese officials and newspapers use the term yuhangyuan (宇航員) in Chinese, however, which roughly translates as "space navigator." Unlike the Russian and Soviet cases, there are no Chinese objections, political or otherwise, to the English use of the term Chinese astronaut.

The first astronaut was Yuri Gagarin, who was launched into space in April 1961 aboard Vostok 1. The first woman astronaut was Valentina Tereshkova, who was launched into space in June 1963 aboard Vostok 6. Alan Shepard became the first American in space in May 1961. On October 15 2003 Yang Liwei became China's first astronaut on the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. Other ethnical Chinese that have been in space include Edward Lu (卢杰), Taylor Wang (王赣骏), Leroy Chiao (焦立中) and Fulin ZHANG (张福林) all of whom are in USA.

The youngest person to fly in space is Gherman Titov, who was roughly 26 years old when he flew Vostok 2, and the oldest is John Glenn who was 77 when he flew on STS-95. The longest stay in space was 438 days by Valeri Polyakov. Up to 2003, the most spaceflights by an individual astronaut was seven. The furthest distance from Earth an astronaut has traveled was 401,056 km (during the Apollo 13 emergency).

International Astronauts

Up until the end of the 1970s only Americans and Soviets were active astronauts. In 1976 the Soviets started the Intercosmos program with a first group of 6 cosmonauts from fellow socialist countries, a second group started training in 1978. At about the same time in 1978 the European Space Agency selected 4 astronauts to train for the first Spacelab mission on board of the Space Shuttle. In 1980 France started their own selection of astronauts (called spationauts), followed in 1982 by Germany, in 1983 by Canada, in 1985 by Japan and Italy in 1988. Several more international payload specialist were selected for the Space Shuttle, and also later for international Soyuz missions of Russia. In 1998 the European Space Agency formed a single astronaut corps of 18 by dissolving the former national corps of France, Germany and Italy.

Astronaut Training

The first group of astronauts tended to be jet fighter pilots from military backgrounds.

Astronaut Deaths

So far, eighteen astronauts have been killed on space missions, and at least ten more have been killed in training accidents on the ground. For details, see Space disaster.

U.S. Space Shuttle astronaut using a manned maneuvering unit
Public domain picture from NASA

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