There really is no such thing as an unimpressive astronaut. At the outset of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, both countries began with a group of talented, courageous, unflappable men, many of whom were decorated test pilots and, by definition, had made careers out of cheating death. Some, however, achieved milestones so important to the planet as a whole, or survived situations so dramatic that they deserve special mention. We’ve ranked these men not only by their accomplishments in space, but also by their achievements in their personal lives.
These milestones are more than just the stage for an ideological contest. The residents of Perth, Australia, a world away from the U.S., used to switch on as many lights as possible during manned flights, for the crew members’ sakes; astronaut David Scott compared the effect to that of a jewel in the dark. Alexey Leonov described an instant kinship upon meeting NASA astronauts, despite their language barrier, acknowledging that they all shared an indescribable bond deeper than nationality. The achievements these men realized will forever be relevant to human history, and that’s deeper than nationality too.
#10 Ed White
A “track star and natural leader,” Ed White was the first American to embark on a spacewalk, one that turned out far more ambitious than NASA had originally intended. After the Soviet program beat NASA to the first spacewalk, White’s mission was revised from simply lifting himself out of the hatch to a full 36-minute EVA. White stayed out far longer than he was supposed to, and was so exhilarated that he called returning to the craft “the saddest moment of my life.”
#9 Gus Grissom
Along with White and two others on this list, Grissom was one of the Mercury Seven, America’s original astronauts, each of whom Time called “a superb physical specimen… self-assured and experienced in peril,” and all of whom had genius-level IQs. He was the second American to fly in space and the first to do so twice. Before his NASA career, he’d flown 100 combat missions in Korea, and had actually requested to stay on and fly more. Along with Ed White, Grissom died tragically in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967.