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Of Astronettes and Parastronauts

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This is a guest post by Sheri Wells-Jensen, Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, Exploration, and Scientific Innovation at the Kluge Center. Wells-Jensen is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. A linguist with research interests in phonetics, braille, language creation, and disability studies, her early work on the potential for non-physically mediated language acquisition (by AI or other non-human beings) led to an ongoing interest in ethical issues related to space exploration, as well as disability issues in space travel. Her current research centers on increasing access for people with disabilities in space. 

I read the word “astronette for the first time in Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate-history Lady Astronaut series. It’s a brilliant word choice, the feminine/diminutive suffix “-ETTE” deftly conveying the disdain some of the (male) astro-NAUTS in the story displayed toward the women in their midst who were doing the exact same job.

The raw meanness of the word is sharpened by the elegance of the linguistic source material: astro-naut, from the Greek roots meaning “star” and “sailor.” Ah, to be a sailor among the stars, no matter who you are.

I hope we can all agree that “astronette” is a nonstarter, and that nobody in the real world ever needs to use it. Either you are an astronaut, or you are not.

Which brings me (reluctantly) to parastronaut,” the term recently coined by the European Space Agency (ESA) to refer to the physically disabled astronaut candidates they considered in 2022.

The Parastronaut Feasibility Project is investigating what physically disabled people need in order to go to space. I have nothing but applause for the project goals, and nothing but admiration for their chosen candidate, British physician and athlete John McFall.

But words matter, and just as “astronette” — with “-ETTE” being commonly interpreted as both a feminine suffix and a diminutive one — is an obviously disrespectful and inaccurate title for a person doing the real work of an astronaut — “parastronaut” is not the right word for John McFall, or for those of us who will follow him to the stars.

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. The word “parastronaut” seems intended to protect us from the uncomfortable presence of the word “disabled.”

Some people are reluctant to use the word “disabled” because they feel it is somehow insulting or disrespectful, especially when used to refer to someone as clearly accomplished as John McFall. But “disabled” is neither an insult nor a mark against anyone’s abilities. Rather, it describes the fact that we live in a world built for the convenience of people whose bodies and minds conform to the supposed “standard.”

Our environment is loaded with barriers, including stairs to climb, printed signs to read, and audible alarms to pay attention to. This means that those of us who cannot walk, see, or hear have a lot of tiresome extra work to do on a daily basis, in addition to the powerful cultural attitudes proclaiming that we are complicated, fragile, and less capable than everyone else.

The word “disabled” is not a critique of our bodies or our abilities; rather, it is an apt description of the consequence of the disabling barriers placed in our way. “It is a word,” says disability rights activist Rebecca Cokley, “given to us by our elders,” icons of the disability rights movement like Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann, who fought for the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is a word that conveys our cleverness and our strength in the face of adversity. It is our word.

  1. I imagine the word “parastronaut” might be intended, in part, to benefit from association with the familiar term “Paralympics.” However, my etymological dictionary tells me that the Greek prefix “PARA-” can mean all these things:

beside, alongside, parallel, almost, accessory, faulty, abnormal

… i.e., “PARA-” has the same ambiguity issues as “-ETTE,” with some of its potential interpretations being less accurate and/or more insulting than others in a given context.

Notably, the Olympics and the Paralympics do run in “parallel”; there are two separate groups of elite athletes who do not directly compete with one another. In space, however, there is no such parallel available. Either John McFall will go to space with the rest of his astronaut cohort or he will not.

Does the “PARA-” prefix, then, indicate that he may work alongside the others, but he is not necessarily expected to succeed? If he does succeed, will he eventually become an un-prefixed astronaut? And when will that day be? When he’s chosen for a mission? When he crosses the Kármán line into space? Or only when he returns safely to Earth, having neither failed in his mission nor overly inconvenienced the rest of the crew?

Or is ESA just using this terminology to manage expectations? The reality is that, right now, largely unnecessary and outdated restrictions prevent all disabled people from going to space, so perhaps the prefix highlights the message that we should keep ourselves in check, not hoping too hard or reaching too high, while a largely non-disabled leadership team eventually figures out if or how we can join the space age.

Of course, not all people who are chosen for the astronaut pool go to space. I would be OK with the word “parastronaut” if it did, in fact, mean something more like “astronaut-in-training.”

But we already have a word for “astronaut-in-training”; those people are called astronaut candidates, and that’s what we should call all our would-be star sailors, whoever they are, including John McFall … and those of us who will come after him.

Comments (3)

  1. Thank you, on behalf of all who have been lessened by gendered, ableist, and other differentiating and othering job titles. They are bad enough on the planet, so I appreciate keeping them out of space.

  2. Very well said, Sheri, well said!

  3. Thank you so much for this great philological study and space-friendly exploration! I have worked in Ancient Chinese archeoastronomy, mainly around the great asterism complex of the Northern Dipper, and its relationship to leadership and devotion. This is not a topic that has too many specialists, foremost is David Pankenier. I deeply appreciate your work, and thanks again for bringing space down to earth!

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