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The Growing List of Astronauts You Need to Know

Read Time: 6 minutes

Ever since humans first looked up at the stars, people have been fascinated by what exists beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Centuries of contemplating, wondering and postulating met with early technology and people realized that space was within the human grasp. Six decades later, people are still falling in love with the idea of floating around in space and walking on the moon. Although having a moonwalk is the most well-known aspect of some space flight, astronauts do much more than claim one small step for man. Along their space career journey, many accomplish tasks and make records that no one has ever set before. Read on to learn more about the growing list of astronauts you need to know. Their stories will inspire generations to come, starting with those who currently dream of reaching the stars.

The First Astronauts in Space

When people first began to wonder how their advancing technology could get people to space, it seemed like an impossible dream. Aviation was one thing, but soaring straight up and out of the atmosphere?

Many hopeful astronauts began attempting mathematical and physical trials to figure out how to get a spacecraft off the earth’s surface. It would take unmatched courage and wits to be among the first in space. To this day, only 556 people have ever qualified for space flight.

Colonel Yuri A. Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin, a young kid with big dreams in Moscow, Russia, decided to jump into the emerging space race when he graduated from the Soviet Air Force Academy in 1957. He started cosmonaut training in 1959 and in 1961, he became the first person to ever orbit the earth. After 108 minutes, the spacecraft that was completely controlled by a computer program began to descend and Gagarin ejected to successfully parachute to the ground.

Alan B. Shepard

Twenty-three days after Gagarin made the first orbit of the earth, Alan Shepard followed in his footsteps. Shepard, a New Hampshire native, served in World War II and trained to earn his Navy wings in 1947.

After the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in 1959, Shepard was chosen with six other men to train for space flight. On May 5, 1961, Shepard piloted his own spacecraft over the earth for nearly fifteen and a half minutes before executing a perfect landing.

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Other Famous Astronauts

After Gagarin and Shepard paved the way for space flight, many others longed to fly faster, go higher and reach the moon.

Valentina Tereshkova

As a young child, Valentina Tereshkova became known in the Yaroslavl region of Russia as the girl who wanted to try parachute jumping. After practicing for years, she was selected as a cosmonaut for her skills.

In 1963, Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space. For just over 70 hours, she orbited the earth 48 times. When she landed, she received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Although she never flew again, she went on to serve in the United Nations and won the United Nations Gold Medal of Peace later that same year.

Neil Armstrong

Nail Armstrong left his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio in 1947 to study aeronautical engineering at Purdue University. He wanted to learn more about his love of flying, but had to put his studies on hold to serve in the Korean War in 1949.

After finishing college, he worked for NASA by testing high-speed aircraft. He was selected alongside Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to man a spacecraft the moon. On July 16, 1969, Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon. He declared the famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Mae Jemison

There seemed to be nothing in the world or in space that Mae Jemison couldn’t accomplish. After beginning her Standford University education at the age of 16, earning a doctorate in medicine from Cornell University in 1981 and serving two and a half years in the Peace Corps, Johnson put life on hold to follow a longheld dream.

She applied to the astronaut program at NASA and was selected with 14 other people from 2,000 applicants in 1987. One year later, she graduated training as the first female African American astronaut.

The next record she set was in 1992, when she became the first African American woman to fly in space. In total, she flew for over 190 hours.

James Lovell Jr.

Over his career, Jame Lovell Jr. became known as one of the greatest pilots of his century. He served several assignments as a navy test pilot after graduating from the Naval Test Pilot School in 1958. NASA often looked at test pilots a potential recruits, because of the high level of danger in the job.

In 1962, Lovel began astronaut training and flew in the Gemini 7 mission in 1965. That brought his promotion to a command position, which is how he ended up commanding the Apollo 13 in April of 1970. On that mission, an oxygen tank exploded and he had to pilot the spacecraft around the moon just right to recorrect their route back to earth. The craft landed safely one week later.

Peggy Whitson

Peggy Whitson has a long list of firsts that she accomplished before retiring from NASA in 2018. She earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985 and was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996.

On her first trip to space, she studied human life and microgravity sciences in 2002. For her second trip, she became the first female International Space Station commander and part of the first pair of women to lead a space mission.

Whitson then went on to blow past the record of most time accumulated in space when she surpassed 377 days. She went on to achieve 665 days in space, setting a new record. Additionally, in 2016 she became the oldest woman to go to space at the age of 56.

Samantha Cristoforetti

After being raised in Milan, Italy, Samantha Cristoforetti graduated from Technische University in Munich, Germany, with a master’s in mechanical engineering. She then went on to join the Italian Air Force Acadamy, where she was inspired to earn her fighter pilot wings in 2006.

In 2009, Cristoforetti was chosen to join the European Space Agency (ESA) as an astronaut. She went on to make history when she spent 200 days in space between 2014 and 2015, the longest spaceflight of any European.

How to Join Astronauts in Space

The road to being an astronaut isn’t easy, but you can join famous astronauts like the ones listed above if you know what to do. It’s a good idea to check all these off your list of accomplishments before applying to an astronaut program:

  • Become athletic
  • Study other languages
  • Graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a related field (and higher degrees, if you want to be competitive)
  • Earn at least 1,000 hours of in-command pilot time
  • Pass NASA’s physical exam

It takes many years to become qualified for potential space travel, so don’t be discouraged if you won’t reach an astronaut training program until at least your mid-thirties.

What the Future Holds

As of writing this, there are currently six astronauts in space. With more missions planned, that number will change which is why NASA is always looking for new recruits. While it’s a challenge to develop yourself to NASA’s astronaut standards, there are many resources available for those who want to try. Many more astronauts will be added to lists like this in the future, since the captivating dreams of being in space won’t fade from the hearts and minds of scientific dreamers.

The Growing List of Astronauts You Need to Know
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Category: Space

2 comments

  1. The first African American woman in space was Dr. Mae C. Jemison, not, as you currently have here, Mae Johnson. Please correct.

    Reply
    1. Hi Talia,

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. The linked resource in this section does correctly state her name as Mae Jemison. Thanks for catching my spellcheck error. Updating this now!

      Megan

      Reply

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.