Please excuse the brevity of this article. A true list of everyone who was awesome in space should be everyone who ever went to space. Everything is cooler in space. It can even make the Facebook-angle self-shot awesome.
Aki Hoshide rendering Instagram obsolete.
Astronauts are head and shoulders above everybody, including Zeus, who lived on Mount Olympus because "on top of a mountain" was the highest people could imagine. When we worked out the actual mind-boggling distances to all those dots in the sky, we told our minds to quit boggling and start building rockets to take us there.
The Romans called one of their gods Saturn. We used the name for something more impressive.
As if traveling to space weren't dangerous enough -- what with the lack of gravity, the possibility of freezing or boiling to death, the exposure to radiation, the inability to breathe -- there are still those who managed to take space travel to a whole new level of badass ...
5Yuri Gagarin Invents, Defeats Extreme Sports
Remember that Felix Baumgartner guy who made global news because he parachuted out of space? Well, Yuri Gagarin did that 50 years ago in a rickety toboggan of a spacecraft with the floor panel missing. Since Garagarin was the first man to actually travel to outer space, he should be the first name anyone thinks of when making a list of space awesomeness. Or, for that matter, any other kind of awesomeness.
Keystone-France / Getty
Every time some jerk shouts "First!" restore your faith in the species by thinking of Yuri instead.
The space race was moving so fast that Yuri was launched before anybody had bothered to invent brakes. That's not hyperbole. But before you even get that far, consider this orbital courage-testing chamber: Three minutes after launch, a bottom panel drops away to unveil the Vzor orientation device (aka "Window in the floor of the friggin' capsule"). This was used to orient the ship with respect to the sun and horizon, and only accidentally meant that the first man into space could see all the way down below him the entire time. For any normal human, this window on the world would have been rendered immediately useless by a covering of fear-rhia.
"It was fine. I like to see the things I'm defeating, like the entire world."
Yuri stayed conscious through 8 Gs of deceleration because he had to deal with the whole "no brakes" thing -- the re-entry plan of the first man in space being ... JUMP! The Vostok 3KA-3 capsule had parachutes, but its main stopping strategy was "There'll be a planet in the way," which is why a hatch opened and automatically ejected Yuri into the sky from the first manned craft to go shooting 7 kilometers straight up, instead of crashing to his death.
Siefkin DR at Wikimedia Commons
Either the Vostok re-entry capsule, or a reduced scale model of one of Yuri's balls.
He upstaged Felix Baumgartner (who got to choose when he felt like jumping) eight years before the latter was even born. Having pulled off the most badass stunt in human spaceflight history (on top of personally being all of human spaceflight history), he never even mentioned it for the good of the program. Most people can't keep quiet about eating a particularly good burger. It was a sign of insane Soviet secrecy that this detail was kept under wraps -- plus, he had already married the woman of his dreams. Meanwhile, the Russians thought the world would be more impressed by "he landed in the capsule" than "our hero personally jumped from a plunging spacebomb and is quite happy about it." Never mind nuclear missiles -- if we'd known that Soviet soldiers did that sort of thing, Red Dawn would have been the tale of obedient Americans learning how to prepare a good kasha and butterbrots breakfast for our beloved Soviet overlords.
As it turned out, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) wouldn't recognize the record flight if the pilot didn't land in his craft. Listen, guys, if your records don't count Yuri Gagarin's achievements, then it's your records that don't count.
4Gordon Cooper Puts the "Man" in "Manual"
Gordon Cooper flew the last of the Mercury flights, a series of manned expeditions in which NASA took the most highly trained fighter pilots in the history of the world and reclassified them as human cargo, specially designing cargo-fitting space-pants.
Gordon Cooper personally hunted and skinned a Cyberman.
The Mercury capsules were created to see if humans could survive in space, and NASA didn't want these important spacecraft to be hindered by the very large lab rats inside.
Although the middle guy was nice enough to ask if John Glenn wanted fries with that.
The Mercury wasn't designed for pilot control, which became a bit of a problem when Gordon Cooper had to pilot one. All the instruments were automatic -- and also useless when Cooper's craft suffered a total electrical failure. Total. Everything. No guidance, no rocket control, not even the readings that told him which way the spacecraft was pointing. The only thing left was the radio, which was wired directly to the batteries, but since David Bowie wouldn't write "Space Oddity" for another six years, there wasn't even anything they could sing, let alone do.
Gordon Cooper, realizing that the universe is now trying to kill him, and glaring at it.
When Cooper realized that a building full of rocket scientists had become about as useful as a chocolate heat shield, he did it himself. Fellow astronaut John Glenn helped him work out a new procedure. Cooper calculated a spacecraft re-entry with fewer tools than you have access to right now -- because you have atmosphere, and the last thing Cooper's dead instruments told him was that the cabin was filling up with deadly carbon dioxide.
Whereas most of us might use our last minutes to tell everyone exactly what we thought of them (especially electricians), Cooper just got on with personally landing the spacecraft, using a plan that would have been considered too unrealistic for most movies. Consider the dilemma presented by Apollo 13, in which the crew had to jury-rig an air-filtration system out of spare parts, and then consider this: Gordon Cooper created an entire steering and re-entry mechanism. He made marks on the window to steer the spaceship by angling it against the stars, and took manual control of the boosters, physically leaning over, pushing and pulling the fuel valves, and timing the bursts with his wristwatch.
Regenc y Stamps
This has been used in more space calculations than HAL-9000.
During re-entry, the most stressful journey the human body can undertake, he had to manually fire the drogue chute, main parachute, and landing pad (every single step of which had only had two possible outcomes -- "perfect" or "pancake"). And what was his response to the world's most lethal math test?
"... that's really what we'd been wanting to do all along. So, it just gave me the opportunity to do what we'd been wanting to do."
When the test pilot astronaut had to personally take on the entire planet, his response was "Finally!" So when kids complain that they'll never use math in real life? Remind them that it's only true if they're planning on a life that sucks.