Hello, friends! Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today’s Sciency Word is:
Back in the day, there were only two words for “person who goes to space.” There were astronauts and there were cosmonauts, with the only meaningful distinction being that astronauts came from the United States and cosmonauts came from the Soviet Union. Today, multiple space agencies use the word astronaut. It’s almost (but not quite) a generic term now. But Russia still uses the word cosmonaut, Chinese astronauts are actually called taikonauts, and just last week I learned that astronauts from India are to be referred to as gaganauts.
Definition of gaganaut: A person from India or otherwise associated with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) who travels to space.
Etymology of gaganaut: Formed by analogy with astronaut and cosmonaut. The “gaga-” part traces back to a Sanskrit word meaning “the sky,” while “-naut” comes from Greek and means “sailor.”
Aside from national origin, there’s still no real difference between astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, and gaganauts. They all travel to outer space. They all do basically the same job. They all have the same United Nations granted status as “envoys of Mankind” (not that that’s been super relevant yet, but someday… you never know!).
I guess the main takeaway from this is that “astronaut” is not a truly generic term. It is a term used by most space agencies, but not all of them. And each of the terms currently in use—astronaut, cosmonaut, taikonaut, and now gaganaut—come with certain cultural and perhaps also political connotations. Just something to keep in mind whenever we talk about people who go to space, specifically or generically.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had originally planned to launch its first crewed mission in December of 2021, according to Wikipedia, but COVID threw a wrench into those plans. So it will be a few more years before the gaganauts get to fly.