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An All-Civilian Crew Has Spent Three Days In Space. Are They Astronauts Now?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Inspiration4, the first-ever all-civilian crew to go into orbit, is set to splashdown off Florida later today after spending three days in space - orbit, space, splashdown - the right stuff. But are these people astronauts any more than BJ Leiderman, who does our theme music? Brendan Byrne of member station WMFE found there's not a clear answer.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: The crew of four launched on a SpaceX rocket, spent time in orbit and conducted science experiments while in space. So are they astronauts? It sounds like an easy question, but it's hard to answer.

GARRETT REISMAN: Wow. OK, you're right. It's not simple.

BYRNE: Garrett Reisman is an astronaut. He flew on three shuttle missions, lived on the International Space Station, went on spacewalks, racking up 107 days in orbit before retiring from NASA. NASA considers anyone training for a mission in the agency an astronaut. The first ones were selected in 1959.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: These, ladies and gentlemen, are the nation's Mercury astronauts.

BYRNE: They might have the name astronaut, but in order for them to earn their wings or what's called an astronaut badge, they need to fly higher than 50 miles above the Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Five hours before he is destined to take a giant stride into history, Colonel John H. Glenn Jr. squeezes into his spacesuit.

BYRNE: One of the most well-known astronauts is John Glenn. He was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. The Inspiration4 crew aren't NASA astronauts, but they flew higher and spent longer in space than Glenn did on that flight. They trained for six months at SpaceX's headquarters in California. They flew fighter jets and went through high G-force training. So are they astronauts? Here's Reisman.

REISMAN: I think you could call them astronauts. They were trained and had the same responsibilities to operate that vehicle that really any of the NASA crews that have gone up to the International Space Station had to do.

BYRNE: But this isn't a NASA mission. It's a commercial spaceflight, which falls under the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration. As tourism flights began ramping up this summer, the FAA reclassified its definition of commercial astronauts. It now requires the crew must perform an activity essential to public safety or contribute to human space flight safety. Space policy analyst Laura Forczyk.

LAURA FORCZYK: So the FAA's definition is different from how we typically use the term of, loosely speaking, anybody who goes to space.

BYRNE: The FAA says SpaceX has designated the four individuals traveling on Inspiration4 as spaceflight participants, not crew, meaning they're not eligible for commercial space astronaut wings. But they are contributing to public health, says Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta. He's the chief scientist of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, which is supporting the medical experiments on the mission.

EMMANUEL URQUIETA: They are really participating not only as just enjoying the ride, but really making sure that their flight is worth for humankind and for the spaceflight community. So absolutely, in my opinion, by all means, they are astronauts.

BYRNE: The fact remains that defining astronaut is still up for debate, especially as more civilians go to space as tourists. But does the term even matter? Not according to retired NASA astronaut Reisman.

REISMAN: Who cares (laughter)? You know, they're still getting to go into space on a rocket, look it out, seeing the Earth out that incredible window.

BYRNE: No matter what you call them, these four people went to space. And they joined the very elite list of fewer than 600 others who get to say they did that.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.