Why Do Russians Call Their Astronauts Cosmonauts? Posted by on Feb 10, 2011 in History, Soviet Union


Today, February 10th 2011 marks «столетие со дня рождения Мстислава Всеволодовича Келдыша» [one hundredth birthday of Mstislav Vsevolodovich Keldish].

Keldish was a Soviet scientist without whose contributions many of «успехи советской космонавтики» [achievements of the Soviet cosmonautics], including Sputnik and the first manned flight would not had happened. Although his name rarely appeared in the newspapers of the time, he was frequently referred to as «Главный теоретик» [The Chief Theorist] of the Soviet space program.

When I was still in school, in the early «постсоветские времена» [post-Soviet era], I couldn’t wait to start the 10th grade. And it wasn’t just because it was getting me closer to graduation. It was because one of the required subjects that year included «астрономия» [astronomy] which, in turn, included studying «космонавтика» [cosmonautics].

Our Brezhnev-era «учебник по астрономии» [astronomy textbook] started its chapter on cosmonautics «Константин Эдуардович Циолковский» [Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky].

Tsiolkovsky is considered to be «основоположник современной космонавтики» [the founder of the modern astronautics]. As a child, I read quite a few of his «научно-фантастические произведения» [science-fiction stories] and they were the only thing that stopped me from totally hating math and physics in high school. He also theorized about such things as «многоступенчатая ракета» [multistage rocket] and «космический лифт» [space elevator]. How awesome is that?! It was only natural to name the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics after Tsiolkovsky.

Russians in general are very proud of their space science and justifiably so. Tsiolkovsky was just «первая ласточка» [the harbinger] of the great things to come. Other notable firsts included «запуск первого спутника в 1957 году» [the launch of Sputnik in 1957]; «полёт Юрия Гагарина в 1961 году» [Yuri Gagarin’s space flight]; «Валентина Терешкова – первая женщина-космонавт» [Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space]; «Алексей Леонов совершил первый выход в открытый космос» [Alexey Leonov became the first human to conduct a spacewalk].

Plus now that the American «челнок» [here – the space shuttle] program is about to be discontinued, American astronauts will have to get to «МКС – Международная космическая станция» [ISS – the International Space Station] on Russian «ракеты» [rockets]. So even though Russian budget for the entire space program is about 1/20th of that of the US, the program itself is alive and doing well (all things considered).

Much of this success was due to the efforts of one man, «Сергей Павлович Королёв» [Sergey Pavlovich Korolev]. His semi-official title was «Главный конструктор космических кораблей» [The Chief Designer of the Space Ships]. That’s some title, don’t you think? Especially considering the fact that in 1938 he was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death (he was accused of “wrecking”). The sentence was ultimately commuted to years in camps, first doing hard labor and then – aircraft and rocket design work.

In the early days the Soviet space program was shrouded in deep secrecy. Even the names of its chief designers and engineers were not widely known. Nobody “on the outside” got to hear about the program’s setbacks, disasters and near-misses. Successes, on the other hand, were widely publicized.

Things are changing now. For example, there’s much talk about «неудачи программы ГЛОНАСС» [mishaps of the GLONASS program]. «ГЛОНАСС» stands for «глобальная навигационная спутниковая система» [the Global Satellite Navigation System]. Former cosmonauts give interviews in which they openly discuss the challenges and «замалчиваемые» [hushed up] details of many missions.

If you’d like to learn more about that, you’ll need to Google space-related forums and communities of «Рунет» [Russian Internet]. For a sanitized, yet still informative information about the Russian Space Program check out the website of «Федеральное космическое агенство «РОСКОСМОС»» [Federal Space Agency “ROSKOSMOS”] has plenty of information.

Oh, and to answer the original question of what came first, cosmonauts or astronauts. First, there was the «астронавт» [astronaut]. Yes, Russian scientists used the term astronaut for a while before switching to the other option. The now-iconic «космонавт» was originally regarded as foreign and confusing. It only entered the dictionaries in 1958 (although it did appear in a sci-fi novel 8 years prior). The momentous decision to switch to «космонавт» was made by «совет ведущих специалистов» [a panel of the leading experts], including M. Keldish.

Question of the day – if you had the money, would you fly to the orbit as a space tourist? Why or why not? I’ll reveal my answer early next week.

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  1. JoAnne Stein:

    Another awesome post, as usual! I’ve always wondered this and now I know why! As for your question, yes I would absolutely fly as a space tourist! It would be an incredible experience! Looking forward to reading your answer! 🙂

  2. Yelena:

    Thanks, JoAnne! Oh, I’d love to spend a couple of days up in the orbit, but only once the space elevator is built. I went on the Mission: Space ride in one of the Orlando parks some years ago. The ride was essentially a centrifuge that simulated increased gravity during the take-off, landing and the slingshot maneuver (if I remember correctly). The ride lasted 5 minutes and I felt sick for the rest of the day 🙂 But turns out, the ride’s intensity is a lot less than that of the shuttle at take-off.