Famous astronauts

Famous Astronauts

A tribute to some of the famous astronauts of the world whose remarkable achievements beyond the realms of the Earth made them immortal in human history.
By definition, an astronaut or a cosmonaut is a person trained to travel in a spacecraft beyond the limits of the Earth. If that's the case, why do people get confused between the two terms? Why is Neil Armstrong referred to as an astronaut and Yuri Gagarin as a cosmonaut?

Basically, the two terms are synonymous; while the Americans call their space travelers astronauts, the Russians call their space travelers cosmonauts. Interestingly, even the Chinese have a unique name for their astronauts -- taikonauts.


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On July 21, 1969, the whole world burst into euphoria. It was the day history was created -- man had set foot on the Moon. While the date -- July 20, 1969, went down in the history of space exploration as the most significant day, the first human to set foot on the lunar surface -- Neil Armstrong, became the most famous astronaut in the world. He was even voted the most popular space hero in a survey conducted by the Space Foundation in 2010.

Armstrong's achievement also put the United States ahead in the much-touted Space Race, which was until then dominated by the Soviet Union with the likes of Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) and Alexey Leonov (the first person to perform an extra-vehicular activity) to its credit. Eventually, the two nations planned a joint mission, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Mission (1975) which then marked the end of the race for supremacy between the two.


In the first illustration, Yuri Gagarin has been depicted in the Vostok 1 capsule in course of becoming the first human in space. In the second, Alexey Leonov is depicted doing the extra-vehicular activity (EVA) outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft while Pavel Belyayev monitors from inside.

There is no questioning the fact that it was this Space Race between the USSR and the United States -- the 20th century battle for space exploration supremacy, which brought out the best in them. We didn't just achieve those space exploration milestones, but also found some of our finest astronauts during this period; the same becomes evident as you go through the list of famous astronauts of the world we have compiled below.

Famous Astronauts of the World
Neil Armstrong
August 5, 1930 - August 25, 2012

Education: Bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Purdue University (1955) and Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southern California (1970)

Before joining NASA: An officer in the U.S. Navy

Total Time in Space: 8 days, 14 hours, 12 minutes, and 30 seconds (2 hours and 31 minutes EVA)

Claim to Fame: On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon as a part of the Apollo 11 mission of NASA's Apollo program. As he set his foot on the surface of the Moon, he said the famous line "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Armstrong was not just the first person to walk on the lunar surface, but also NASA's first civilian astronaut to fly in space; a feat he pulled off when he was chosen as the command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission (1966). It was on this mission that he joined pilot David Scott to perform the first ever manned docking of two spacecraft.

Awards and Legacy: Neil Armstrong was decorated by as many as 17 nations for his accomplishments. Of the numerous awards he got throughout his lifetime, the major awards were the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Space Medal of Honor, Congressional Gold Medal, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy. Other than the numerous institutes and astronomy facilities, Neil Armstrong also has a lunar crater and an asteroid -- the 6469 Armstrong -- named after him.

Buzz Aldrin
January 20, 1930 - Present

Education: Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from the United States Military Academy (1951) and the Doctorate of Science in Astronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1963)

Before joining NASA: A fighter pilot in the United States Air Force

Total Time in Space: 12 days, 1 hour, and 52 minutes (7 hours and 52 minutes EVA)

Claim to Fame: Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. was the second person to set foot on the Moon. Very few people know that, but that doesn't make it any less of an achievement, and therefore he deserves a place in any given list of famous astronauts. Aldrin was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 11. On July 20, 1969, he stepped on the lunar surface along with Armstrong, while Collins was orbiting the Moon. Aldrin is also closely associated with extra-vehicular activity (EVA). Working outside the Gemini 12 spacecraft for 2 hours and 6 minutes on November 13, 1966, he became the first person to successfully work in space without tiring.

Awards and Legacy: For his accomplishments, Buzz Aldrin was given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009. Earlier, in 2006, he was given the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award by the Space Foundation; the organization's highest award.

Michael Collins
October 31, 1930 - Present

Education: Bachelor's degree from the United States Military Academy (1952)

Before joining NASA: A flight test officer in the U.S. Air Force

Total Time in Space: 11 days, 02 hours, and 04 minutes

Claim to Fame: Michael Collins was the command module pilot for Apollo 11 mission; the first manned landing on the Moon. While Armstrong and Aldrin were carrying out the lunar surface operations, Collins was piloting the Command/Service Module (CSM) in the lunar orbit. In his autobiography, 'Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys' (1974), he rightly writes "this venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two."

Awards and Legacy: Presidential Medal for Freedom in 1969 and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal

Yuri Gagarin
March 9, 1934 - March 27, 1968

Education: Graduated from a trade school and took military flight training at the Orenburg Higher Air Force School.

Before joining the Soviet space program: A pilot in the Soviet Air Force

Total Time in Space: 1 hour and 48 minutes

Claim to Fame: On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space as a part of the Soviet space program. When he orbited the Earth in his Vostok spacecraft, he also became the first person in the history of mankind to do so. Vostok 1, Gagarin's lone spaceflight, lasted for 108 minutes; the shortest orbital manned spaceflight till date.

Awards and Legacy: Being the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin became an international hero and was honored by several countries across the world. He was given the Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation's highest honor, on April 14, 1961. The Cosmonaut Training Center was named Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in 1969. An international event to commemorate space exploration milestones -- the Yuri's Night -- is named after Yuri Gagarin, and celebrated on April 12 every year.

As a mark of respect, Armstrong and Aldrin left Soviet medals commemorating Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov -- the first human to die during a spaceflight -- on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission.

Alan B. Shepard, Jr.
November 18, 1923 - July 21, 1998

Education: Bachelor of Science from the United States Naval Academy (1944)

Before joining NASA: A test pilot in the U.S. Navy

Total Time in Space: 9 days and 57 minutes (9 hours and 17 minutes in lunar surface EVA)

Claim to Fame: On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the second person to travel into space. The spaceflight on which he flew, the Freedom 7, was the United States' first human spaceflight. It was originally scheduled for October 1960, but unforeseen problems resulted in the mission being delayed twice; first to March 6 and then to May 5. Meanwhile, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. If it were not for the delays, Shepard would have become the first human in space. Nevertheless, he did become the first American in space, which was also an honor in itself.

Awards and Legacy: Alan Shepard did miss out on becoming the first human in space, but his achievements were rewarded. He was awarded the prestigious Congressional Space Medal of Honor (1978), NASA Distinguished Service Medals (twice; 1961 and 1971) and the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal. The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center -- an air and space science center -- in Concord, New Hampshire, is named after him and Christa McAuliffe.

John Glenn, Jr.
July 18, 1921 - Present

Education: Bachelor's degree in Engineering from the Muskingum College

Before joining NASA: A combat aviator in the Marine Corps

Total Time in Space: 9 days, 02 hours, and 39 minutes

Claim to Fame: John Glenn was one of the original group of seven astronauts chosen for Project Mercury -- the United States' first human spaceflight program. On February 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth (the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission.) His flight aboard the Mercury spacecraft -- Friendship 7, lasted for 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds; in course of which he circled the planet thrice. In 1998, Glenn -- then a U.S. Senator -- was chosen for Space Shuttle Discovery mission -- the STS 95, as the Payload Specialist 2. At the age of 77, he became the oldest person to go into space.

Awards and Legacy: Post Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, John Glenn became a national hero in the United States. Other than the two highest civilian awards, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he was also awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. In his honor, NASA officially renamed the Lewis Research Center as the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in 1999.

Gherman Titov
September 11, 1935 - September 20, 2000

Education: Graduated from the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy (1968)

Before joining the Soviet space program: A pilot in the Soviet Air Force

Total Time in Space: 1 day, 01 hour, and 18 minutes

Claim to Fame: On August 6, 1961, Gherman Titov became the first person to orbit the Earth multiple times; 17 to be precise. On this spaceflight aboard Vostok 2, Titov also became the second human to orbit the Earth after Yuri Gagarin. Overall, he was the fourth person in space after Yuri (April 1961), Alan Shepard (May 1961), and Gus Grissom (July 1961). He was also the first person to suffer from space sickness. He also showed that it was possible to stay in space for more than a day, to work in orbit, and to sleep there. At 25, he was the youngest person in space; a record which is intact till date.

Awards and Legacy: Upon his return from his maiden spaceflight, Gherman Titov was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union and two Orders of Lenin. He also has a crater on the far side of the Moon, the Titov crater, named after him.

Valentina Tereshkova
March 6, 1937 - Present

Education: Correspondence courses from the Light Industry Technical School

Before joining the Soviet space program: A textile factory assembly worker/amateur parachutist

Total Time in Space: 2 days, 23 hours, and 12 minutes

Claim to Fame: Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space when she embarked on the Vostok 6 mission on June 16, 1963. In course of the 3 days, which she spent in space, she orbited the Earth 48 times. In her single spaceflight, she superseded the flight time of all the American astronauts who had gone in space before her. (It took another 19 years for the second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, to fly into space.) As Tereshkova was inducted in the Soviet Air Force only to facilitate her entry into the Cosmonaut Corps, she is considered the first civilian to go into space.

Awards and Legacy: Among other awards, Valentina Tereshkova was decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union, the Order of Lenin, and the Order For Merit to the Fatherland. She was also honored by the United Nations with the United Nations Gold Medal of Peace. The Tereshkova crater on the far side of the Moon was named so in honor of this Soviet cosmonaut.

Sally Ride
May 26, 1951 - July 23, 2012

Education: Bachelor's degree in Physics and English (1971), Master's degree in Physics (1975), and Doctorate in Physics (1978)

By occupation: A physicist

Total Time in Space: 14 days, 07 hours and 46 minutes

Claim to Fame: On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space when she embarked on NASA space shuttle mission STS-7 aboard Space Shuttle Challenger. At 32, she was also the youngest American astronaut to fly into space. On her maiden flight, she became the third woman in space after Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982). On this spaceflight, she also became the first woman to use the robot arm in space and use it to retrieve a satellite. Ride was the lone individual to be on the investigation panel for both, the Challenger accident and the Columbia disaster.

Awards and Legacy: Other than the two NASA Space Flight Medals, Sally Ride has been honored with numerous awards, including the von Braun Award and the Theodore Roosevelt Award (NCAA). She was also inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In December, 2012, NASA announced that the site where twin gravity probes hit the Moon, near the crater Goldschmidt, would be named the Sally K. Ride Impact Site.

Alexey Leonov
May 30, 1934 - Present

Education: Graduated from the Chuguev Higher Air Force School

Before joining Soviet space program: A fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force

Total Time in Space: 7 days, 00 hours, and 32 minutes

Claim to Fame: On March 18, 1965, Soviet cosmonaut, Alexey Leonov became the first human to conduct an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) when he spent 12 minutes and 9 seconds outside the spacecraft as a part of the Voskhod 2 mission. Leonov was all set to become the first person from the Soviet to land on the Moon, but the project eventually got canceled. He was also a part of the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight in 1975 -- a historical event which brought an end to the nearly two decade long Space Race between the United States and Soviet.

Awards and Legacy: Alexey Leonov was showered with numerous awards by the USSR as well as several other countries of the world, including the German Democratic Republic, Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Syria and the Hungarian People's Republic. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union twice -- first on March 23, 1965, and then on July 22, 1975.

Edward H. White, II
November 14, 1930 - January 27, 1967

Education: Bachelor's degree from the United States Military Academy (1952) and Master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan (1959)

Before joining NASA: A test pilot in the U.S. Air Force

Total Time in Space: 4 days, 01 hour, and 56 minutes

Claim to Fame: On June 3, 1965, Ed White became the first American to walk in space when he was chosen as the pilot for the Gemini 4 mission. For the period of 21 minutes that he was outside the spacecraft, he controlled himself using the Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit (HHMU), thus becoming the first person to do so. He was later chosen as the Senior Pilot for Apollo 1 -- the first manned mission of the Apollo program, which was scheduled for launch on February 21, 1967. That mission, however, ended in a tragedy as an accident killed Ed White along with the two other crew members Gus Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee on January 27.

Awards and Legacy: For the successful completion of Gemini 4 spaceflight, Ed White was honored with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. Posthumously, he was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1997.

Kathryn D. Sullivan
October 3, 1951 - Present

Education: Bachelor's degree in Earth sciences from the University of California (1973) and a Doctorate in Geology from Dalhousie University (1978)

Before joining NASA: An oceanography officer at the U.S. Naval Reserve

Total Time in Space: 22 days, 04 hours, and 49 minutes

Claim to Fame: On October 11, 1984, Kathryn Sullivan became the first American woman to do the space walk. Other than the Space Shuttle Challenger mission STS-41-G, wherein she performed the EVA, Sullivan also embarked upon two other missions; STS-31 in April 1990 and STS-45 in March-April 1992. (STS-31 mission was the one which launched the Hubble Space Telescope into the Earth's orbit.)

Awards and Legacy: In 2004, Kathryn Sullivan was awarded the Adler Planetarium Women in Space Science Award.

John Young
September 24, 1930 - Present

Education: Bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology (1952)

Before joining: A United States Naval Aviator

Total Time in Space: 34 days, 19 hours, and 39 minutes

Claim to Fame: In his 42 years of active service in NASA, John Young made six spaceflights -- the first person to do so, and went to the Moon twice. His first moon mission was the Apollo 10 in May 1969, whereby he became the first person to orbit the Moon alone. On his second voyage in 1972 -- Apollo 16 mission -- he became the ninth person to walk on the lunar surface. What sets him apart though, is the fact that he is the only person to have piloted four different classes of spacecraft -- Gemini (1965 and 1966), Apollo CSM and Apollo Lunar Module (1969 and 1972), and Space Shuttle (1981 and 1983).

Awards and Legacy: Other than the Congressional Space Medal of Honor (1981), John Young also received the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award, and NASA medals, like the Navy Distinguished Service Medal with gold award star and the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal.

James "Jim" A. Lovell, Jr.
March 25, 1928 - Present

Education: Bachelor's degree from the United States Naval Academy (1952)

Before joining NASA: A test pilot in the U.S. Navy

Total Time in Space: 29 days, 19 hours, and 03 minutes

Claim to Fame: James Lovell Jr. is the lone astronaut who has gone to the Moon twice and not landed on the lunar surface. His first voyage was a part of the Apollo 9 mission (March 1969) and second, a part of the Apollo 13 mission (April 1970). Other than being the first person to go to the Moon twice (only 2 other people have pulled off this feat), he was also the first astronaut to make four trips to space.

Awards and Legacy: Jim Lovell received several awards throughout his lifetime; the most prominent ones among these were the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Space Foundation's General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award, Dr. Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy, and the Hubbard Medal given by the National Geographic Society. Today, Lovell has museums, streets, health care centers, and a lunar crater named after him.

Eugene Cernan
March 14, 1934 - Present

Education: Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University (1956) and Master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School (1963)

Before joining NASA: A fighter pilot in the United States Navy

Total Time in Space: 23 days, 14 hours, and 15 minutes

Claim to Fame: If Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon, Eugene Cernan was the last man to do so. Till date, there have been 6 manned landings on the lunar surface; all of which were carried out between 1969 and 1972. The last of these, the Apollo 17, was launched on December 7, 1972, with Eugene Cernan as the commander of the same. While Ronald Evans, the Command Module Pilot, remained in the orbit, Cernan, along with Lunar Module Pilot, Harrison Schmitt, descended on the lunar surface. Whilst reentering the lunar module, Schmitt entered first and Cernan followed him; thus becoming the last man on the Moon.

Awards and Legacy: Other than awards like the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and NASA Exceptional Service Medal, Eugene Cernan was also honored with the highest state decoration of the Republic of Slovakia -- The Order of the White Double Cross.

These astronauts made mankind proud with their fabulous achievements, but we also need to acknowledge the fact that they are a part of the astronomy fraternity who worked together to make us proud. Also deserving a special mention here are those astronauts who lost their lives in the line of duty. Today, memorials, like the Space Mirror Memorial at the John F. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, stand in their honor, but real honor for them would be our simple act of recognizing their contribution.
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