According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, people who fly beyond an altitude of 100 kilometers are recognized as astronauts. As of 2016, a total of 549 people have reached low Earth orbit (LEO), and only 24 of them have traveled beyond LEO (lunar orbit or lunar surface).
They have made enormous contributions to advancing space research and enhancing our knowledge about the Earth and cosmos. Although it’s quite difficult to rank them, we cannot deny the fact that some names do stand out from others’. We are presenting a brief list of the most famous astronauts who put a dent in the universe with their achievements.
15. Kalpana Chawla
The crew of STS-107, Chawla in the center
Kalpana Chawla was the first female American astronaut of Indian origin who went to space twice. Chawla completed her graduation from a University in Punjab, India, before getting her MSc in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, Arlington, in 1984. She joined NASA in 1988 as a fellow researcher and did extensive research on concepts such as V/STOL.
During her first space mission (STS-87), Chawla, along with five other astronauts, was assigned to deploy a satellite named Spartan 201, conduct an Extravehicular activity (EVA), and several other experiments. She died during her second space flight, the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 while performing atmospheric re-entry.
14. Mae Carol Jemison
Jemison aboard the Spacelab Japan
Not many in their life can achieve everything they crave for, but she sure did. Working with NASA, Mae Jemison became the first African American female to reach outer space, onboard the Endeavour space shuttle in 1992. Before NASA, she was selected in the Peace Corps in 1985 following her medical degree and a brief period of medical practice. Jemison currently holds nine honorary doctorates in engineering, science, and humanities.
At NASA, she administered various tasks in the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, before going to space. She, however, left NASA to form her own research firm. She is also famous among sci-fi fans for appearing in the Star Trek episode.
13. Marc Garneau
Image Courtesy: NASA
Marc Garneau became the first Canadian astronaut when he was assigned as one of the crew members to the STS-41-G in 1984. Like most of the early astronauts, Garneau started in the military, as an engineer in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1974, before being promoted to Captain. He left Navy ranks in 1989 to become the Deputy Director of the newly formed CAP (now Canadian Astronaut Corps). Here, he gained further experience and became a mission specialist. After working as a ground flight controller for a couple of space missions, he himself went to outer space two times in 1984 and 1996. During his entire career, Garneau registered more than 670 space hours under his belt.
12. Guion Bluford
On August 30, 1983, for the first time in human space exploration history, astronaut Guion Bluford of African-American heritage went to outer space. Before starting a career with NASA, Bluford was a ranked officer in the U.S Air Force, where he continued to serve even after his initial recruitment in the space agency.
At NASA, he became part of a total of four different space missions from 1983 to 1992. For his services, Bluford was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1997 and the U.S Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010.
11. Scott Kelly
Scott Kelly with Former U.S President Barack Obama
The retired American astronaut, engineer, and a former Navy captain Scott Kelly is perhaps one of the popular modern personality among the space lovers. The veteran NASA astronaut commanded a total of three International Space Station expeditions and been in space for four different occasions.
Scott Kelly made it to LEO soon after becoming an astronaut. Only three years later, he was the pilot for STS-103, a shuttle mission that upgraded the Hubble Space Telescope. His crew spent eight days in December 1999 in space (celebrating Christmas), where their main duties were to install instruments and upgrade systems on Hubble.
In 2015, Kelly achieved a milestone after he spent a record 520 days in space. The record was later broken by astronaut Jeff Williams in 2016 and astronaut Peggy Whitson year after.
10. Alexey Leonov
Alexey Leonov (on the right) with Anton Shkaplerov
The Soviet-born Alexey Leonov was the first person to perform a spacewalk or, more formally, an Extravehicular activity (EVA) during the Voskhod 2 mission. Actually, his spacewalk was scheduled to be taken place during the Voskhod 1 mission but was canceled and was scheduled a year later.
During this historic event, a severe malfunction in Leonov’s spacesuit almost caused his life. Due to a minor defect, his pressurized suit began to inflate during his spacewalk. The inflation quickly escalated to high levels, and he couldn’t even re-enter the spacecraft. He released a valve of his suit to release the pressure to bleed off, but this resulted in a quick loss of oxygen, which nearly killed him.
9. Pete Conrad
Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., was one of the highly respected American astronauts in the world. He was an American NASA astronaut, naval officer, and test pilot. During the Apollo 12 mission, he became the third man to walk on the Moon. He joined NASA as a part of a special group called New Nine in 1962.
For his first mission, he was assigned to Gemini 5, where along with his mission commander Gordon Cooper, he broke the previous space endurance record of five days. After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Conrad and Alan L. Bean became the second NASA pair to perform Moon expedition in 1969.
8. Chris Hadfield
Chris Hadfield is one of the prominent Canadian astronauts, who performed a spacewalk. Born and raised on a farm in southern Ontario, Hatfield’s biggest inspiration while growing up was watching the Apollo 11 landing on his T.V set. After graduation, he joined the national Armed Forces and was eventually accepted into the Canadian astronaut program in 1992.
In 2013, during his third and last expedition to ISS, as a commander of the mission, Hadfield was responsible for various important tasks. During this mission, he captured various space images and posted on different social media platforms, which earned him a great deal of popularity from around the world.
7. John Herschel Glenn Jr.
John Herschel Glenn was an engineer, U.S Marine Corps pilot, astronaut, and later Senator from the state of Ohio. In 1962, he became the first U.S national to orbit the Earth following his Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. Before being selected by NASA, Glenn was a prolific fighter pilot who served in various wars, including World War II, China, and the Korean War.
As a fighter pilot, he received various medals and honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and more than a dozen Air medals. In 1957, he became the first person to perform a supersonic transcontinental flight across the country, while his onboard camera took the first-ever panoramic photograph of the entire United States.
6. Sally Kristen Ride
Sally Ride communicates with controllers from the Challenger’s flight deck
Sally Kristen Ride was born in Los Angeles, Southern California, in 1951. She joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the age of 27 and soon became the first woman from the United States to enter space. Internationally, Sally Ride was only the third female astronaut in space after two Russian (USSR) cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya.
5. Buzz Aldrin
Buzz Aldrin made history in the field of human space exploration after becoming a part of the first crew to land on the Moon in 1969. As the Module Pilot on Apollo 11, he was the second person to walk on it after the commander Neil Armstrong.
Before joining NASA, he was enlisted as a second lieutenant in the U.S Air Force and was deployed in the Korean peninsula during the Korean War. Three years before the Lunar mission, Aldrin went into orbit for the first time during the Gemini 12 mission and achieved the first successful EVA without mishap.
4. Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong stands alongside X-15 -1
Does this person need any formal introduction? I guess not. He is arguably the most famous astronauts, especially to kids who someday wants to become an astronaut. Born in 1930, in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong graduated from Purdue University and became a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics before becoming an astronaut.
After the Mercury 7 program, NASA wanted to recruit a fresh line of astronauts, and that’s when Armstrong joined and became part of the Gemini program. On July 16th, 1969, Armstrong, alongside “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, became the first astronauts to walk on the moon’s surface (except Michael Collins).
3. Valentina Tereshkova
Valentina Tereshkova with Nikita Khrushchev, Pavel Popovich and Yury Gagarin at Lenin’s Mausoleum
At the age of 83, the Russian born Valentina Tereshkova is the oldest astronaut alive on the Earth. She is also the first and youngest woman to have flown in space, two years after Yuri Gagarin. Before becoming a cosmonaut, Tereshkova worked as an assembly worker in a local textile factory.
She left the Soviet Space Agency and became one of the well-known faces of the Communist Party in the Soviet regime. From 1966 to 1991, she held various important legal offices. She remained politically active years after the collapse of the USSR and is regarded as a hero in Russia.
2. Alan Shepard
Edgar D. Mitchell, Alan B. Shepard Jr. (center), and Stuart A. Roosa
In the midst of the Cold War, Russia’s Sputnik 1 launch in 1957, shook America’s confidence in its space and tech superiority over the Soviets. This was the first major move from either side during the Space Race. In response, the then U.S President Eisenhower formed NASA and gave them the go-ahead to recruit their first astronauts from military ranks.
Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. was one of the first naval aviators who was recruited by NASA under the name of the Mercury Seven in 1959. In May 1961, he made the first manned Project Mercury flight, Freedom 7. He became only the second person in the world, and the first American, to travel in space.
1. Yuri Gagarin
As the first man to space, no list of famous astronauts would be complete without the Soviet/ Russian born cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. In 1955, he was drafted into the Soviet Air Force and then landed on the Soviet Space Program due to his excellent flying record. He was soon selected for a special group known as the Sochi Six, from which the country would choose its first cosmonaut.
On April 12th, 1961, with the entry of Vostok 1 into the outer space, Gagarin became the first-ever human to reach space. After his successful return, Gagarin instantly became an instant hero and was awarded various honors. Gagarin tragically died in 1968 during a fatal routine exercise. The detailed report of the crash was declassified in 2013, which stated that he died due to an error on the part of another pilot.