Space exploration has fascinated the world for many years. From the first steps taken on the moon to modern space tourism, we can’t stop thinking about what exists beyond our planet. But only a few have actually taken the brave journey to venture outside our atmosphere. We’ve put together this list of famous astronauts you can incorporate into your lessons throughout the year and share with students on National Astronaut Day on May 5.
In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to go to space. The Soviet cosmonaut had been an impressive military fighter pilot, making him an ideal choice for this monumental moment. At 203 miles above our planet, he said the first words spoken by a human in space: “I see the earth. It’s so beautiful!”
Learn more: Yuri Gagarin
Born in 1923, Alan Shepard was one of NASA’s original seven astronauts. In 1961, he became the second person (after Yuri Gagarin) and the first American in space. Shepard is one of only 12 individuals to walk on the moon (and at 47 years old, he was the oldest!). He’s also famous for being the first person to hit a golf ball on the moon.
Learn more: Alan Shepard
In 1961, a male chimpanzee named Ham (an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center) became the first hominid sent into space. In an effort to prove that humans would be capable of performing basic tasks while in orbit, Ham was trained to push a lever when he saw a blue light. While he suffered a bruised nose, the 16-minute flight was considered a success and Ham lived the rest of his life in zoos in North Carolina and Washington, D.C.
Learn more: Ham
Arguably the most famous astronaut of all time, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. During this incredible Apollo 11 mission, he said these iconic words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Learn more: Neil Armstrong
Although Neil Armstrong was more famous, Buzz Aldrin also walked on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Compared to his colleague, Aldrin went on more NASA missions and spent nearly 300 hours in space!
Learn: Buzz Aldrin
Apollo 13 Crew
In 1970, the Apollo 13 traveled into space for a lunar landing but was forced to abandon the mission after an oxygen tank exploded. These famous astronauts decided to try swinging around the far side of the moon and, in the process, set a record for the farthest humans have ever traveled from Earth.
During the ordeal, they had limited supplies, including water, power, and heat, but they made it home. The original crew of the Apollo 13 included Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly, and Fred Haise, but after Mattingly was exposed to measles, Jack Swigert replaced him at the last minute.
Learn more: Apollo 13 Crew
Aboard Friendship 7 in 1961, John Glenn circled our planet three times in five hours, making him the first American to orbit the Earth. Just five years earlier, he’d become the first person to travel across America at supersonic speeds, capturing the world’s first panoramic image of the United States.
This pioneering spirit continued throughout his life. Glenn was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 (making him the first astronaut to become a senator), and then in 1998, at the age of 77, he became the oldest person to take a spaceflight.
Learn more: John Glenn
Selected by the Russian Space Federation in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to go to space, and she’s one of Russia’s most famous astronauts. She orbited the Earth a whopping 48 times, keeping a flight log and taking photographs that aided future missions.
Learn more: Valentina Tereshkova
Two decades after Valentina Tereshkova’s mission, Sally Ride became the first American woman (third overall) and the first LGBTQIA+ person in space. At 32, she was also the youngest American astronaut in space. Her first two missions, beginning in 1983, took place aboard the Challenger.
While she was training for her third mission on Challenger, the shuttle broke apart during launch, killing all seven people on board. After the disaster, all space trips were put on hold, and Ride retired from NASA. Still, she remains one of the most famous astronauts in history.
Learn more: Sally Ride
After serving as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam in the 1960s, Guion Bluford joined NASA and became an astronaut in 1979. He made history as the first African American in space. His first mission was aboard the Challenger in 1983. Bluford went on to complete three more shuttle missions before retiring.
Learn more: Guion Bluford
In 1986, NASA chose school teacher Christa McAuliffe to be the first civilian in space. The mission generated a lot of excitement but, sadly, it ended in tragedy. Just over a minute after launch, the Challenger space shuttle broke apart, killing all crew members including McAuliffe. Over the years, schools, scholarships, and prizes have been named in her honor.
Learn more: Christa McAuliffe
Born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, Ellison Onizuka was a successful U.S. Air Force test pilot before joining NASA in 1978. Just seven years later, he became the first Asian American in space. Unfortunately, he was killed during his second mission at age 36 as a crew member of the Challenger space shuttle.
Learn more: Ellison Onizuka
Before joining NASA and becoming one of the most famous astronauts, Mae Jemison was a doctor in the Peace Corps. She went on to become the first Black woman in space in 1992. Aboard the Endeavor, she orbited Earth 127 times in just eight days! After retiring from the space program, Jemison became involved in research, wrote children’s books, and even appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Learn more: Mae Jemison
Born in India, Kalpana Chawla moved to the United States in 1982 to attend graduate school. After becoming a citizen in 1991, she applied for NASA’s astronaut corps and became the first person of Indian descent to go to space aboard the Columbia shuttle in 1997. Tragically, on her second mission, she and her six crewmates lost their lives when the Columbia broke apart upon reentry in 2003.
Learn more: Kalpana Chawla
Born in Madrid and raised in California, Michael López-Alegría was a Navy pilot before becoming an astronaut. In 1995, he completed his first NASA mission and subsequently performed 10 spacewalks and has spent almost 68 hours outside the spacecraft. He currently holds the American record for the most extravehicular activities (EVAs).
Learn more: Michael López-Alegría
Franklin Chang-Diaz and Jerry Ross
Famous astronauts Franklin Chang-Diaz and Jerry Ross have both been to space seven times and share the NASA record. Chang-Diaz, who is of Costa Rican and Chinese descent, completed his first mission in 1986 aboard Columbia and retired in 2005. Ross flew on Atlantis in 1985 for his first mission and retired in 2012.
Learn more: Franklin Chang-Diaz and Jerry Ross
It’s hard to summarize all of Peggy Whitson’s accomplishments. She joined NASA as a biochemical engineer in 1989 and became an astronaut seven years later. Whitson’s first spaceflight was a trek to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2002.
Since then, she’s served as both commander and Chief Astronaut of the ISS and holds two incredible records: She’s performed more extravehicular activities (EVAs) than any woman, with more than 60 hours outside the spacecraft, and she’s spent the most cumulative days in space (665 days spread over three long-duration flights!).
Learn more: Peggy Whitson
After a successful career in the Navy, John Herrington joined NASA in 1996. Six years later, he was selected for a 2002 mission aboard the Endeavor. As a member of the Chickasaw Nation, he became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe in space. His three spacewalks are commemorated on the back of the 2019 Sacagawea dollar coin.
Learn more: John Herrington
One of Canada’s most famous astronauts, Chris Hadfield is known for his successful space missions and incredible fan base on social media. In his highly successful career, he’s been named Top Test Pilot by both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, flown three space missions, performed two spacewalks (extravehicular activities/EVAs), built two space stations, and commanded the International Space Station.
After Neil Armstrong, he may be the most famous astronaut, but it’s not just about his hard work as an engineer. The musical performances he filmed aboard the International Space Station have accrued millions of views, including his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
Learn more: Chris Hadfield
Mark and Scott Kelly
Identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly are definitely among the most famous astronauts in history. They will be remembered for their numerous contributions to space exploration and research as individuals over their long careers, but their NASA Twin Study will likely be the biggest story in their impressive legacy.
In 2015, Scott Kelly embarked on a 342-day mission on the International Space Station with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. In the process, he set the American record for most consecutive days in space. While his twin was far away from our planet, Mark Kelly stayed on Earth. The goal was to study the long-term efforts of space travel on the human body. Scientists were able to compare the twins’ genes after Scott spent nearly a year in space.
Learn more: Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly
Who are your favorite famous astronauts? Share in the comments below!
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