The space programs around the world surely stand on the shoulders of giants. If not for the bravery and determination of the men and women before us, many of the space-related accomplishments that we take for granted simply would not have happened. Following is a short list of some of the most spectacular and world-changing astronauts of this short Space Age.
While many Americans may know that the Russians put a person in space before the US, they may not know that gentleman's name: Yuri Gagarin. On April 12, 1961, Yuri transformed the Space Age into the Manned Space Age. Oh, and he has a 130 foot monument made of titanium dedicated to him.
Mr. Titov is truly an inspiration to me. He was, and still is, the youngest person in space. On August 6, 1961, a 25 year-old Gherman spent just over a day orbiting the Earth.
Flying free is what Aleksei Leonov did that makes him special. Aleksei became the first person in human history to actually be in space. Without a ship around him, Aleksei spent 12 minutes in the presence of absolutely nothing. He then went on to command the Russian side of the very first US-USSR joint mission.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin
We all know these two men were the first to land on the moon. For about one day, they were the only inhabitants of an entire world. Yes, the moon is smaller than the earth, but try thinking of it this way: Neil and Buzz were the only two people on an area larger than Europe, South America, and Australia, combined. Now that's desolation.
Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov
These three men were the first to inhabit a space station orbiting over 100 miles above the earth. They spent 23 days performing very meaningful scientific experiments that progressed our understanding of extended stays in microgravity. Those 23 days, however, proved to be these men's last, as their returning spacecraft accidentally vented all of its air during descent, suffocating the cosmonauts.
Bruce McCandless II
What Aleksei Leonov did, Bruce McCandless took to the next level. On February 7, 1984, Bruce became the first person to be completely freely floating in space sans tether. Utilizing a maneuvering unit that he helped design, McCandless ventured into the void of space on his own and came back, twice.
Proving that Russia and USA were not the only nations interested in spaceflight, China put Yang Liwei into orbit aboard the Chinese-designed and Chinese-launched spacecraft Shenzhou 5. Despite mission parameters that hearkened back to the US Gemini and Russian Vostok missions, Yang's flight on October 15, 2003 signified the entire world's desire to do what the US and Russia had been doing for decades: exploring the limits above us.
Melvill's mission was simple: get to space and come back. On June 21, 2004, he became the 443rd person to do so. Melvill, however, did this aboard a privately-built, privately-funded, and privately-launched spacecraft. No longer are the US and Russia in a race to get to space. The space race is now in the hands of the private industry.
I'm sorry to report that all of these record-setting astronauts are men. Yes, I could have listed the "First Woman in Space," but I think that belittles the issue at hand. Women simply haven't been given opportunities to beat out the men. Perhaps the first person to set foot on Mars will be a woman.