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And how tenable is this distinction now that a third space agency carries out manned flights (China), and others are poised to follow?
I can think of no other profession/job title where this distinction is made. Also, with the increased cooperation between spacefaring nations, the lines are getting blurred: what do we call an American who's employed by NASA, but is trained in Russia for a flight to the ISS aboard a Soyuz? Is it logical to have some ESA personnel be called astronauts, and others cosmonauts?

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  • $\begingroup$ meta.space.stackexchange.com/questions/174/… $\endgroup$ – Everyone Apr 13 '14 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ Much to the chagrins of Americans, French, Russians, and Chinese, there is no uniformly agreed upon international language, and hence there is no uniformly agreed upon name for those who go into space. To make matters worse, no matter what language one uses, the word for people who go into space is a very recently invented term. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Apr 13 '14 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ There is also taikonaut for the chinese... $\endgroup$ – Polygnome Jun 23 '16 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ The Chinese space agency does not use 'taikonaut', in English-language texts they use astronaut. 'taikonaut' was coined by some blogger. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Oct 16 '18 at 9:17
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As David pointed out, no language has a long established word for a space explorer, because space exploration is incredibly new.

Over time it may be that we end up using one word (which may be from the Americans, Russians, Chinese, Indians or whoever) but the simple answer is that it really doesn't matter.

At the moment it slightly helps to differentiate between countries, giving us an expectation of type of craft, suit, language even., but it doesn't matter either way with collaborations such as the ISS.

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