Is Hazza an astronaut, a cosmonaut or a koononaut?

Cosmonaut is the word even though America's Nasa uses astronaut for its crewmembers aboard Nasa spacecraft.


Abhishek Sengupta

Published: Sun 22 Sep 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 1 Sep 2020, 5:39 PM

Not everyone understands the cosmos well but for all those living in the UAE, there will be plenty of space watching this week thanks to Hazza Al Mansoori, the first Emirati astronaut who's all set to blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) in two days in what will be the UAE's historic first-ever space launch.
But have we been wrongly calling him an astronaut all this while instead of a cosmonaut? Perhaps yes, technically speaking, because he is rocketing off aboard a Russian-made Soyuz from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's first and largest operational space launch facility located in an area of southern Kazakhstan that's leased to Russia. And for the Russians - who became the first ones in 1961 as part of the then USSR to send a man (Yuri Gagarin) to space - there's no word called astronaut in their lexicon!
Whilst astronaut is the globally accepted designation for a professional space traveller in the English-speaking world, it's just not cool in former Soviet countries and of course in Russia to call them so. Cosmonaut is the word even though America's Nasa uses astronaut for its crewmembers aboard Nasa spacecraft, just like the European Space Agency does for its astronaut corps. Over in the Soviet bloc, it's all got a different trademark. Just like how jacket potato becomes baked potato in the US, the taxi becomes the cab, the biscuit gets the cookie, and aubergine takes on the mantle of the humble eggplant on the other side of the Atlantic. There are scores of such incongruities but no naming battle is as seriously fought as that over the men and women who go to space.
By convention, an astronaut employed by the Russian Federal Space Agency (or its Soviet predecessor) is a cosmonaut - an anglicised version of the original Russian word kosmonavt (one who works in space outside the Earth's atmosphere) that gets its name from the Greek words kosmos for 'universe' and nautes for 'sailor'. It's pretty much the same for other former Eastern Bloc members too who all use variations of the kosmonavt including the Poles who call it kosmonauta.
So, by that token, both Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, were cosmonauts - and arguably still remain the most famous ones. While American scientist and former US Marine Corps officer Norman Thagard, also a naval aviator and Nasa astronaut, became the first 'American cosmonaut' when he rode to space onboard a Russian spacecraft for the Russian Mir-18 mission in 1995, an era when the world was still warming up to the end of Cold War tensions.
But cosmonauts and astronauts are just two ends of a spectrum that's got a fair representation from other countries, too. And since we are at it, why not talk about the Chinese as well? While they call anyone navigating outer space hángtian yuan, they use the phrase tài kong rén (loosely translated as the spaceman) more widely in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is from this word that the English media picked the more popularly accepted name for professional space travellers from China - the taikonaut. And would you believe it, taikonaut even finds a mention in the Oxford English dictionary which describes it as a portmanteu of the Chinese term tàikong for 'space' and the Greek naútes for 'sailor'. Yang Liwei, who went into space aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft in 2003, was the world's first taikonaut.
While only Russia (and previously the Soviet Union), the United States, and China have so far launched a manned spacecraft, several countries have sent people into space in collaboration. Hazza Al Mansoori's historic mission to space on Wednesday, for example, will be a result of UAE's association with the Roscosmos, Russia's state corporation responsible for the wide range of space flights and cosmonautics programmes for the Russian Federation. Some of these missions lend the astronaut many of its synonyms including spationaut the French use, and Vyomanauts the Indians are hoping to send to space in 2022. Coined from the Sanskrit word vyoman meaning 'sky' or 'space', it is not hard to understand why that name!
Shall we then say it's time we gave Hazza an official title too before he blasted off to space on Wednesday? How about koononaut from the Arabic word koon for cosmos? Just asking.

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