Astronauts happen when test pilots fly enough to literally level up, and cosmonauts are so tough, they can use diamonds as chewing gum. Humanity found a place so high, fast, and awesome that even jet engines can't take it, and our response was to build something cooler that could keep up with us.
The Vostok 8K72K, the first machine made by man to beat the sky.
We've already seen spectacular space travelers, but here's the thing: Space never stops being cool. So here are some more.
5Alexei Leonov Doesn't Need All This Air
The first person mentioned in any badass list has to be Yuri Gagarin. Even if it's not a space list. An honest list of the world's top 10 chainsaw jugglers would start by explaining that they were driven to such suicidal desperation by how the Most Badass Person Ever had already been found.
Time Magazine, Cover Credit: BORIS CHALIAPIN
After this cover, all "Man of the Year" covers were literally "... after Yuri Gagarin."
Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space, but Alexei Leonov was the first without a wimpy spaceship in the way. Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev rode the Voskhod 2 ( "voshkod" means "ascent" or "dawn") to the most hostile environment humanity can reach. Then Leonov proved that humanity can take it.
Leonov pictured above the entire world, AS IS ONLY RIGHT AND PROPER FOR SUCH A MAN.
Leonov spent 12 minutes in utterly open space. The only scientific function of this spacewalk was to see if he'd survive it. Never mind the human body -- back then the world's rocket scientists didn't even know what space would do to spacesuits, which is why the high-pressure oxygen supply inflated Leonov's suit so much that he couldn't get back into the capsule. Unless Leonov wanted to stay in space for the rest of his life -- which would be less than an hour -- he'd have to do something amazing.
Luckily, doing amazing things was his entire job, career, and legacy. Ditto Ed White, seen here, who did the same thing 11 weeks later.
Leonov's solution was stupidly simple: If all this oxygen was getting in his way, it would just have to go. He twisted his "keep air inside" valve to "not doing that" (which has to be the first thing they teach you not to do in cosmonaut school, just before "don't sit underneath rocket engines"). Oh, and he didn't bother telling mission control what he was doing because he didn't want to worry them.
Leonov eventually made it back into the capsule, but space seemed to have fallen in love with the world's greatest man. And tried to keep him. As well as the suit problems, there were difficulties in resealing the hatch, the automatic re-entry pilot failed, the orbital module refused to detach and had to be burned off in the atmosphere, and the capsule landed hundreds of kilometers off course in a frozen wilderness full of mating-season bears and wolves, where the cosmonauts spent two days. But honestly, any angry bear coming up to Leonov would only be doing it to ask what it was like to be tough and awesome.
"HERE LET ME OPEN THAT BEER FOR YOU MR. LEONOV."
4Spacemen Can Hold It
Mir ("Peace" or "World") is one of the most amazing things humanity ever did. Back when we were just working out the first Zelda game, we also built an entire space station. Mir outlasted the mere nation that built it by a decade, and that's a physical metaphor for the importance of space travel over petty political B.S.
No, no caption gag, just go back and LOOK at that until you get how amazing it is.
Unfortunately, petty political B.S. was able to fight back. The crew was made to manually dock resupply ships, because the country making their automatic docking system was no longer a part of Russia. The first two attempts almost ended in disaster, so ruble-pinching idiots on the ground decided that the third time's a charm. For the disaster. And just to make sure, they told the station to turn off the radar system and guide the speeding supply capsule with handheld rangefinders by looking out the window.
David De Lossy/Digital Vision/Getty
"Hmm, the milkman's been, and two tons of orbital metal are speeding straight at my face."
To this day, snooker players call what happened the most predictable collision in history. Then shout "HOLY S#!T," because it was a spaceship ramming a space station. Vasily Tsibliev, Aleksandr Lazutkin, and Mike Foale felt their ears pop, and in space that's scarier than hearing a piranha between your legs, because at least then you'd still have enough air to scream.
Racing against the winds of a vacuum death to seal the damaged capsule meant ripping up rivers of wiring holding the station together, some of which were burning with electrical fire. They got the hatch sealed just in time to find that the station was out of alignment, the solar arrays were down, and the emergency batteries had been running the entire station while they'd been busy trying to keep the air in. Meaning the emergency batteries were nearly empty. Then they were totally empty.
Then the entire station died.
Three men spent the next 30 hours awake orbiting Earth in a dead aluminum box. They passed the time working out how to reorient the station and not die with their Soyuz capsule's rocket motors. This involved waving lots of paper: Not to show off the numbers, but to make sure the carbon dioxide they were breathing out didn't build up and kill them.
Nick White/Digital Vision/Getty
"And here you see how much quicker I've killed us all by giving this presentation."
They managed to reorient the space station, getting enough power into the batteries to restore contact with the ground. After 30 hours of straight life and death, they got some sleep. Then, as Foale reports, "After about 48 hours we had power on the toilet, I think, which was terribly important, because by that time we were just bursting."
That's not a joke. You can't just go in the corner in a flying electrical system. In a situation where any mortal would have "vented" immediately, three spacemen just held their mortal terror-wee for two days. That's how tough spacemen are. And that's the kind of tough that makes Thor take off his helmet when you fly past.