According to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (World Air Sports Federation), individuals who fly past the altitude of 100 kilometers (the Kármán line) are astronauts. In the criteria set by the United States, that distance, however, is reduced to 80 km (50 miles).
Based on the FAI definition, a total of 553 people have flown into space or reached 100 km in altitude as of 2018. Out of these, only 24 individuals have traveled beyond low Earth orbit (lies between 160-2000 km). As per U.S classification, 558 individuals have made space flight.
Evidently, since the emergence of human spaceflight, numerous astronauts have contributed to the advancement of this field. Thus it is challenging to choose, let alone rank astronauts based on their prominence. But it’s also a fact that some names are more popular and influential than the others. Below is our list of the 15 most famous astronauts in the world.
Table of Contents
15. Marc Garneau
Image Courtesy: NASA
Accolades: Inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame, Vice-president of the Canadian Space Agency.
Joseph Marc Garneau became the first Canadian in Space when Space Shuttle Challenger STS-41-G was successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center on October 5, 1984. The STS-41-G mission itself was unprecedented, not just one but for various reasons. It was the first space mission ever to carry seven crew members, of which two were women. It also marked the first EVA performed by a female American astronaut.
Like most early astronauts, Garneau started his career with the military as an engineer in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1974. He was one of the first six candidates recruited by the Canadian Astronaut Corps (CAP) in 1983 for future crewed space missions.
Garneau left the Navy in 1989 to take an executive position in the CAP. Here, he undertook specialist training and worked as CAPCOM (spacecraft communicator) before returning to space two more times, first on May 19, 1996 (STS-77), and then on November 30, 2000 (STS-97).
During his entire career, Garneau registered more than 670 space hours under his name.
14. Kalpana Chawla
The seven-member crew of STS-107 (Kalpana Chawla in the center) | Image Courtesy: NASA
Accolades: The Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Further Recognition: Asteroid 51826 and Kalpana-1, India’s first dedicated meteorological was named after her.
Kalpana Chawla was the first female of Indian origin to go to space, and she did it twice. Before joining NASA in 1988, Chawla received her master’s in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, Arlington. Before that, she completed her graduation from a University in Punjab.
At NASA, Kalpana Chawla did extensive research on V/STOL (vertical and/or short take-off and landing) concepts. She joined the NASA Astronaut Corps in 1995 and was selected for her first mission a year later.
In her first space mission (Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87), Chawla was assigned to deploy the solar spacecraft SPARTAN-201, which eventually failed. She returned to space in January 2001 as part of the space mission STS-107. For 15 days, Chawla and her crew performed a battery of experiments concerning microgravity and atmospheric dust.
Upon re-entry to the atmosphere, the shuttle encountered severe malfunctions and disintegrated moments later. All seven crew members, including Kalpana Chawla, died in that accident.
13. Mae Carol Jemison
Jemison aboard the Spacelab Japan
Accolades: Inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Known For: First African-American (female) in space.
Mae Carol Jemison was born on October 17, 1956, in Decatur, Alabama. From a young age, she had a keen interest in space and believed that more women should become astronauts.
Jemison was accepted to NASA’s astronaut training program in 1987, as one of the first candidates selected after the Challenger disaster in ’86. Before joining NASA, She volunteered at the Peace Corps between 1983 and 1985 after receiving her medical degree and a brief medical practice stint. Jemison currently holds nine honorary doctorates in engineering, science, and humanities.
Mae Jemison became the first woman of African descent to reach space on September 12, 1992, with the successful launch of STS-47 (Space Shuttle Endeavour). The mission also carried the first Japanese astronaut and first married couple into space.
After the completion of the mission, Jemison left NASA to set up a private space research firm. She is also famous among sci-fi fans for appearing in an episode of Star Trek.
12. Guion Bluford
Guion Bluford onboard STS-8 in 1983
Accolades: National Aviation Hall of Fame and U.S Astronaut Hall of Fame inductee; NASA Distinguished Service Medal recipient.
Known For: First African-American (Male) in Space
Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 22, 1942. His interest in science from a young age allowed him to excel academically. Apart from a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree in aerospace engineering, Bluford is also an MBA graduate, a rare feat for an astronaut at that time.
For a decade between January 1966 and 1976, Bluford served in the United States Air Force. By the end of his career, he had logged more than 5,200 flight hours in different jets, including T-38, F-4C, F5A/B, and U-2.
In January 1978, NASA selected Bluford for its astronaut program, but it was not until 1983 that he would make his maiden spaceflight. On August 30, 1983, with the successful launch of STS-8 (the first mission with night launch/landing), he became the first African-American to reach space.
FACT: The first person of African heritage to space was Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez onboard Soyuz 38 (Soviet Space Program) in 1980.
11. Scott Kelly
Scott Kelly with Former U.S President Barack Obama
Accolades: NASA Distinguished Service Medal recipient (the highest honor by NASA) and numerous other space medals
Scott Joseph Kelly, a retired American astronaut, engineer, and Navy Captain, is one of the most famous personalities among space fanatics. In his 21 years long career as an astronaut with NASA, Scott has been to space on four different occasions.
All combined, he has spent a staggering 520 days in space (the third most by an American). He also has clocked over 18 hours in three EVA’s.
Scott’s first spaceflight took place in December 1999 onboard STS-103, the third Hubble servicing mission. About eight years later, in 2007, Scott made his second spaceflight, this time as a mission commander of Space Shuttle Discovery STS-118.
His third (October 2010) and fourth (November 2012) visits to space were part of long-duration missions to the International Space Station (Expeditions 26,45, and 46).
10. Alexei Leonov
Alexei Leonov (on the right) with Anton Shkaplerov
Accolades: Hero of the Soviet Union (twice); International Space Hall of Fame and International Air & Space Hall of Fame inductee; FAI Gold Space Medal recipient.
Known For: The first person to conduct an EVA or spacewalk
Alexei Leonov was perhaps one of the most admired cosmonauts in the former Soviet Union. He was the first person to perform a spacewalk or EVA, and if things had gone according to plan, the Soviet Cosmonaut could have been the first person on the moon.
On March 18, 1965, after reaching the low earth orbit on Voskhod 2, Leonov and his fellow crew member made necessary preparations for the first-ever extravehicular activity. It lasted for 12 minutes and 8 seconds. Near the end of the spacewalk, Leonov experienced critical malfunctions with his spacesuit that temporarily prevented Leonov from re-entering the spacecraft.
Leonov returned to space for the second and last time in July 1975 as the commander of Soyuz-19, a part of the historic Apollo-Soyuz mission (first space expedition between the United States and the Soviet Union).
9. Charles Pete Conrad
Accolades: Congressional Space Medal of Honor; NASA Distinguished Service Medals, and NASA Exceptional Service Medals (two); Gold Medal (FAI)
Know For: Being the third person to walk on the moon
Being only the third human being to reach the lunar surface is enough credential for Charles Conrad to be on any list of most famous astronauts in the world. However, one should not overlook his other accomplishments.
A graduate from Princeton University, Charles Conrad Jr., was the first NASA astronaut from the Ivy League. After college, Conrad joined the U.S Navy, where he trained as a fighter pilot. In 1958, NASA approached him for the astronaut selection process of the “Mercury Seven” program but was eventually rejected.
About four years later, while searching for the next group of astronauts, Conrad was again considered, and this time, he was pursued by Alan Shepherd, both of whom knew either from their early Navy days.
His first spaceflight took place on August 21, 1965, onboard Gemini 5. The mission tested several critical systems and maneuvers planned for the Apollo Program. The spacecraft and its two-person crew, including Conrad, spent almost eight hours in space, setting a new endurance record.
8. Chris Hadfield
Accolades: NASA Exceptional Service Medal; Order of Canada (the second-highest honor in Canada)
Without a doubt, Chris Hadfield is one of the most popular modern astronauts with a large fan following and social media presence. Born and raised in Southern Ontario, Hatfield’s biggest inspiration while growing up was watching the telecast of Apollo 11 landing on the lunar surface.
In 1978, Hadfield joined the Canadian Armed Forces and subsequently graduating from the Royal Military College in 1982. He became a successful test pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Forces and, in later years, an exchange officer with the United States Navy.
Hadfield made it to the Canadian Space Agency in 1992, and in the same year, he was shortlisted to join NASA. He made a total of three trips to space. On his maiden spaceflight (STS-74) in November 1995, Chris Hadfield became the first and only Canadian to board the Russian Space Station Mir.
On his third and last mission to space, Expedition 35, he became the first Canadian to command the International Space Station.
7. John Glenn
Accolades: Congressional Space Medal of Honor; NASA Distinguished Service Medal
Known For: First American and the third person to orbit the Earth
John Herschel Glenn Jr. had an illustrious career. He was a distinguished fighter pilot in the U.S Navy and later the Marine Corps, a famed astronaut, and a United States Senator in his later years.
In 1957, while with the U.S Navy as a test pilot, Herschel became the first person to perform a transcontinental plane at supersonic speeds. The on-board camera on his flight took a continuous panoramic image of the United States, the first of its kind.
John Glenn was selected by NASA in 1959, as part of the legendary ‘Mercury Seven’ project, which assembled the very first batch of astronauts in the United States. With the successful launch of the Mercury-Atlas 6 or Friendship-7, Glenn became only the fifth person to space and the first American to orbit the earth.
In 1974, he added yet another accomplishment under his name after becoming the first astronaut to be elected into the U.S Senate.
Glenn returned to space on January 16, 1998, at the age of 77, becoming the oldest person to make a spaceflight.
6. Sally Ride
Sally Ride communicates with controllers from the Challenger’s flight deck
Accolades: NASA Space Flight Medal (twice); the Astronaut Hall of Fame and National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee.
Known For: First American women in space
Sally Kristen Ride became an inspiration for every woman around the world when she came to be the first American woman and third overall to reach space. She remains the youngest American astronaut to have done so.
Before joining NASA in 1978, Sally Ride earned her master’s and Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her doctoral research was on the interaction of x-radiation with the interstellar medium.
During her time with NASA, Sally made two spaceflights, STS-7 and STS-41-G. A third mission (STS-61-M) was also planned, for which Sally had already completed an eight-month training, but was scrapped due to the Challenger disaster.
5. Alan Shepard
Edgar D. Mitchell, Alan B. Shepard Jr. (center), and Stuart A. Roosa
Accolades: Congressional Space Medal of Honor; NASA Distinguished Service Medal (twice); NASA Exceptional Service Medal
Known For: First American to space, and the fifth to walk on the lunar surface
The successful launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, amidst the cold war, shook America’s confidence to pursue its ambitions in space and showcase technological superiority over the Soviets. In response, the then U.S president Dwight Eisenhower established nation’s first space agency, NASA, the following year.
For the first batch of astronauts, the organization handpicked individuals from the military ranks, which famously became known as ‘Mercury Seven’ project. Among those original Mercury Seven astronauts was Alan Shephard.
Before joining NASA, Shephard spent more than a decade as a test pilot in the United States Navy. On May 5, 1961, with the successful launch of Mercury-Redstone 3, Shephard became the first American and only the second individual overall (after Yuri Gagarin) to reach space.
During his spaceflight, Shephard reached a maximum altitude of 187.4 km and stayed in a sub;-orbital trajectory for a brief period. It was also the first spaceflight in which the astronaut had to control the aircraft’s orientation manually.
4. Buzz Aldrin
Accolades: NASA Distinguished Service Medal; NASA Exceptional Service Medal; International Space Hall of Fame and U.S Astronaut Hall of Fame
Known For: The second person to walk on the Moon
Time spent in space: 289 hours and 53 minutes
Nicknamed “Dr. Rendezvous,” Buzz Aldrin was the first NASA astronaut with a doctorate. On his first spaceflight onboard Gemini 12, Aldrin performed three EVAs for a total duration of more than 5 hours.
Along with his fellow crew member, James Lovell, Aldrin carried out more than a dozen scientific research and other objectives such as docking/undocking using the newly developed gravity-gradient stabilization technique.
On July 21, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two individuals to land and walk on the lunar surface. They both spent a total of 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon.
3. Valentina Tereshkova
Valentina Tereshkova with Nikita Khrushchev, Pavel Popovich, and Yuri Gagarin at Lenin’s Mausoleum
Accolades: Numerous civilian honors in the Soviet Union
Known For: Being the first women in space
Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space on June 16, 1963, almost two decades before Sally Ride. She remains the youngest female astronaut to do so.
Before joining the Soviet space program, Valentina worked as an assembly worker in a local textile factory was an avid skydiver. After her maiden spaceflight onboard Vostok 6, she left the Soviet Space Agency and joined politics, gaining widespread fame.
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. Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong stands alongside X-15 -1
Accolades: Congressional Space Medal of Honor; Congressional Gold Medal; NASA Distinguished Service Medal; NASA Exceptional Service Medal
Known For: The first person to walk on the lunar surface
Neil Armstrong is arguably the most famous astronaut in the world and an inspiration to aspiring youngsters who dream of becoming an astronaut one day. 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).
1. Yuri Gagarin
Accolades: Hero of the Soviet Union
Known For: The first person in space
No list of famous astronauts is complete without the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. In 1955, Yuri was drafted as a fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force and was selected to the Soviet Space program due to his superior flying record. He was then shortlisted for a special group of astronauts known as the Sochi Six (Soviet’s equivalent of Mercury Seven).
On April 12th, 1961, with the entry of Vostok 1 into outer space, Gagarin became the first-ever human to reach space. After his triumphant return, Gagarin instantly became a national hero and was awarded various honors. Gagarin tragically died in 1968 during a fatal routine exercise. A detailed report of the crash was declassified in 2013, which stated that he died due to another pilot’s error.