Whenever there is competing exploration of new ideas and frontiers, there is competing terminology for the recent advancements. During the space race, both the Soviet Union and the United States were attempting to make the most advances into space. These superpowers mutual quest to dominate outer space is exemplified by the fact that each nation invented its own terminology for the same profession. The Soviets were the first to put a man in space, and they called their explorers cosmonauts, based on the Greek words for “universe sailor”. NASA chose a very similar term, astronaut, meaning “space sailor” in Greek, as the title for those selected to join the NASA corps. The separate terms gave each nation a sense of pride in their scientific advancements.
The majority of the difference between astronauts and cosmonauts is a matter of nationality and politics. The two terms are a relic of Cold War era propaganda. An astronaut and a cosmonaut are essentially the same thing; however, one is Russian and one is American. Modern astronauts and cosmonauts have nearly identical requirements and training. They even work together on the International Space Station. In the days of the space race, though, there were some differences.
The criteria for selecting astronauts was defined in 1957 by specialists at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. Potential astronauts had to be younger than 40 and no taller than 5’11 in order to fit into the Mercury capsule. Astronauts had to have a B.S. degree, and have graduated a military test pilot school with jet qualifications and at least 1,500 hours of flight time. Candidates also went through extensive psychological testing before NASA selected the first seven astronauts from 473 candidates.
The USSR selected its candidates from the Russian Air Force, RSC Energiya and IMBP, and had over 3,000 pilots volunteer for the program. Cosmonauts had to be younger than 30 and no taller than 5’7. They also had to be military officers who had graduated from the Soviet air force equivalent of a U.S. junior college. None of the new cosmonauts were test pilots, and the most experienced applicant had 900 hours of flight time. After their own psychological tests, the USSR chose 21 men to be the first cosmonauts. Eventually the Soviets relaxed their physical standards and increased the education requirements for their program, making it more resemble the American program.
The cosmonauts and the astronauts had many superficial differences – they spoke different languages, they came from different countries, they used different equipment. In the modern day though, the two terms are accepted as synonyms meaning essentially the same thing.