5 Astronauts More Badass Than Any Action Movie Hero
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 ...
Yuri 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.
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.
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.
Gordon 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.
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.
Neil Armstrong Stops the Centrifuge of Death
As an astrological sign, Gemini truly encapsulates the duality of the human race. As a manned space mission, it's one of the most badass achievements in history.
Tell you what, let's both fly into space. We'll use our scientific data, and you can use your astrology charts.
David Scott and Neil Armstrong flew Gemini 8 to test what happens when you dock a Gemini capsule with an Agena target vehicle, but they ended up testing what happens when a Gemini tries to kill its crew. The result? Astronauts kick ass. The docked ships started spinning uncontrollably. Undocking only increased the rotation, proving that the problem was with the Gemini (and the laws of inertia). Their craft sped up until the entire universe was whipping past the windows once every second, giving "Hertz" a whole new meaning. Let's face it: When you've turned the sun into a strobe light, things have gone very badly.
Edward White made a spacewalk from Gemini 4. Technically unrelated, but just LOOK at that.
Everything was spinning wildly, and a false weight made it difficult to lift their heads from the seats, or even reach out their hands. The NASA report says that their "physiological limits seemed near," because "ohs#!tGONNADIE" is deeply unprofessional. Instead of blacking out, Neil Armstrong manually overrode the spaceship thruster system and fired the craft's re-entry motors, saving their lives. Doing so killed the Gemini 8 mission, but we can all agree that it was in self-defense.
Catching a Satellite by Hand
The ability to grasp tools is a definitive advantage, and we've taken it all the way from sticks to ... communications satellites? Catching a satellite with your hands is what happens when Superman plays spaceball; it's not meant to be something that happens in the real world. But no one told the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour that when they went for an orbital triple play to capture a rogue Intelsat VI satellite. The Endeavour wasn't actually designed to capture satellites, but when you're already taking human bodies into space, achieving things you weren't ever designed to do is an awesome given.
For example: Alexei Leonov, the first man to put on a nice suit and STEP INTO SPACE.
Pierre Thuot, Richard Hieb, and Thomas Akers of mission STS-49 outdid every space combat movie ever made. Even the swashbuckling Star Wars gang never said "Let's just get out there and GRAB stuff," and that was a movie with Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca.
Technically he's a heavenly bear.
The Johnson Space Center designed a mission-specific capture bar, which turned out to be the most expensive version of that annoying claw-grabbing game ever invented. Despite multiple spacewalks, the bar refused to grab hold, so the crew maneuvered to within about a meter of four tons of orbital velocity metal, got outside, and mastered an off-world communications hub with nothing but their opposable thumbs. Because even during the depressing years of working as the world's most glorified TV repair staff, astronauts still deserved every single bit of that glory.
The most badass game of "catch" ever.
So if V'Ger ever does come back, threatening to destroy the planet, we won't need the Starship Enterprise; we already have astronauts trained and ready to Greco-Roman wrestle it.
Valeri Polyakov Is King of Space
Valeri Polyakov has spent longer being awesome in space than most people have spent being awesome on the ground. Polyakov was a doctor-cosmonaut, specializing in astronautic medicine, when he wanted to find out what happens to the human body in space. When you look up "humans staying in space long enough to reach Mars" in the dictionary, you won't find it, because that's not a single word, but when you look it up in scientific journals, it says "Valeri Polyakov." He's the one-man test case for shipping people to other planets.
"Aw, you guys and your gravity are so cute."
He spent 240 days on the Mir space station for the Soviet Union in 1988, then another 437 days for Russia in 1994, because his space adventures transcend petty things like "Earth politics" (which must have looked particularly petty from where he could see them). Sealing someone in a tin can for over a year sounds like a recipe for a psychological horror movie, and has been, several times, but Polyakov wanted to prove that the human mind could take it. Extended stays in space can also cause loss in muscle mass and bone density, but a specialized workout program meant that Polyakov Rocky-ed his way through it.
After a year in space, returning to full gravity must have felt like the Earth was on him, instead of the other way around, but Valeri insisted on walking from the capsule to the chair provided just to show how much the human body could take. His first actions on the ground were to tell people that, when humanity really wants to, it can be the most awesome thing in existence.
NASA astronaut Norman Thagard reported that Polyakov looked "like he could wrestle a bear," which is both a compliment and a kickass truth about Russian space training. Wrestling grizzlies in space? If the next Die Hard has to be Russian, that should be the plot.
Polyakov is likely to hold the record for longest stay in space until someone actually takes him up on his dare to fly to the red planet. The astronomical unit is the distance from the Earth to the sun, and he flew two of them just to prove a point. He traveled 300 million kilometers in a tin can to challenge the entire human race to get moving again.
Luke looks at more badass achievements with The Craziest Consensual Sex Criminals, and goes where no internet has gone before by actually reading before clicking "I agree" in the Terms of Service experiment. Check him out at his website and Tumblr, or on Twitter, where he responds to every single tweet.
For more spectacular space ass-kicking, check out 12 Pictures of Space You Won't Believe Aren't Photoshopped and 6 Badass Spacecraft Landings Humanity Totally Nailed.