For decades, people around the world have looked up at the stars and thought about the brave women and men who travelled beyond the bounds of earth’s gravity in the name of science and exploration. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, Yuri Gagarin—just to name a few—are all names recognized far and wide for their heroic voyages far above the surface of the Earth. And what did they all have in common? They were astronauts, “envoys of mankind” boldly going where no man had gone before—to borrow from the immortal words of Star Trek.

When Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the moon, he acknowledged the significance of that act for all of humanity, not just for himself or for the United States. It truly was “one small step for man” and “one giant leap for mankind.” Can the same be said today, with the rise of private space travel?

On July 12, 2021, billionaire Richard Branson “became the first person to ride into space aboard a rocket he helped fund.” On September 15, 2021, SpaceX’s Inspiration4 became the first all-civilian spaceflight when it orbited the Earth for three days without any professional astronauts on board. These private space flights funded by eccentric billionaires are a far cry from what most countries were expecting when they were in the midst of the space race in the 1960s and when they negotiated the various treaties that govern activities in outer space.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, space travel was entirely within the ambit of national governments. Astronauts were granted special status under the Outer Space Treaty (OST) as “envoys of mankind” and each State party to the treaty had an obligation to provide assistance to any astronaut in distress whether upon landing back on Earth or in outer space. How will this special status apply with the increasing privatization of space travel and the rise of space tourism, and should space tourists be considered astronauts?

International Law and the Definition of “Astronaut”

With the advent of space tourism and what might be called the private space race, it may come as a surprise that there is not an agreed-upon definition of “astronaut.” Is it “a person who travels beyond earth’s atmosphere”? This simple definition would extend the special status of astronaut to any space tourist or private individual who boards a rocket that enters outer space. (The legal definition of what constitutes outer space is another interesting question which does not have a simple answer.)

What about the slightly narrower definition of “a person who has been trained for travelling in outer space”? This would limit the status of “astronaut” to civilian flight crews who undergo training while leaving out the Richard Bransons of the world who merely pay for a flight into outer space. While these definitions may seem like common sense to most people, do they work with the international legal scheme?

In looking to international law, some have offered a stricter definition of an astronaut. An astronaut must be: 1) a person (sorry to the monkey and dog space travelers out there); 2) carrying out professional activities connected with the exploration and use of outer space or a celestial body; and 3) performing those activities in accordance with the rules and principles of international law. This definition would likely render the civilians piloting SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission astronauts. The phrase “professional activities” would likely separate the civilian pilot crews from the space tourists and leave the space tourists without the special status of astronauts. But this definition misses something important: under Article V of the OST, astronauts are considered “envoys of mankind.” This means that the actions they undertake in space are performed in the “name of mankind.” When private companies send individuals into space to collect resources for profit, can it really be said they are acting in the name of mankind? Should private individuals seeking to use outer space for their own benefit be able to claim the title of astronaut?

There is another definition of astronaut that conforms with international law and would separate future space tourists and commercial opportunists from the venerated “envoys of mankind.” An astronaut is: 1) a person located on an object in space; 2) conducting their activities for the benefit and in the interest of all countries; and 3) regarded as an envoy of mankind in outer space. This definition takes account of the OST while not limiting the legal status of astronaut to government personnel. Thus, there is a place for civilians on the International Space Station and on future space exploration missions to claim the title of astronaut when they are acting for the benefit of all mankind. But the title of astronaut is withheld from those seeking joyrides into outer space or seeking to exploit space resources for their own commercial benefit.

This definition comports with the OST and furthers the purpose for which it was negotiated: to encourage international cooperation in the exploration of space for scientific and peaceful purposes and for the benefit of peoples and countries. It reserves special status for those carrying out space exploration for the benefit and as representatives of humanity while denying that status to individuals acting only for their own benefit. 

Why Does it Matter?

As noted previously, all States party to the OST and Rescue Agreement are under an obligation to render aid to astronauts in distress and to immediately return them to the State of registry of their space vehicle if they crash land anywhere on earth. These legal obligations do not extend to non-astronauts. In the near future, with more civilians and space tourists launching into outer space, whether or not someone qualifies as an astronaut might make a difference in whether a State renders aid to a distressed space traveler. Will States be willing to expend resources to rescue another State’s citizen who has crash landed if they are under no international obligation? It might depend on whether they consider that individual an astronaut. Thus, the title of astronaut is more than just a distinction for those space travelers serving as envoys of mankind as they explore worlds beyond earth’s atmosphere. It is a mark of someone granted special status under international law; a status that will be questioned as more space tourists and entrepreneurs take to the skies. 

Author Biography: Brandon Padgett is a contributor for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He received a B.A. in Psychology and French from Georgetown University in May 2020. His primary interests are International Development, International Human Rights, and Space Law.