National Astronaut Day: 10 Record-Breaking NASA Astronauts and Their Achievements

Today is the fifth National Astronauts Day—an event held every year on May 5 to mark the day Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

On May 5, 1961, Shepard was launched into space in a Mercury spacecraft called Freedom 7, flying 116 miles high. The entire journey lasted 15-and-a-half minutes and was deemed a success.

Over the last 50 years or so, hundreds more have followed in his footsteps and become astronauts—a word derived from the Greek for "space sailor." In celebration, Newsweek has compiled a list of 10 record-breaking NASA astronauts and their out-of-this-world achievements.

1. First all-female spacewalk: Jessica Weir and Christina Koch (2019)

After months of anticipation, the first all-female spacewalk took place last year on October 18, when Jessica Weir and Christina Koch stepped outside the International Space Station (ISS) to replace a battery charge/discharge unit. The event had originally been scheduled for March 2019 but problems relating to space suits had put a dampener on the plans. It was a first for Meir, who became the 15th woman to perform a spacewalk.

"In the end, I do think it's important, and I think it's important because of the historical nature of what we're doing," Koch said of the milestone at the time. "In the past women haven't always been at the table."

According to NASA, the all-female spacewalk had not been specifically planned. Instead, it was likely to happen at some point given the growing number of women being admitted into NASA. Half of the candidates in Koch and Meir's class of 2013 were female.

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch (right)
NASA astronauts Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch (right) put on their spacesuits as they prepare to leave the hatch of the International Space Station and begin the historical first-ever all-female spacewalk. NASA

2. Longest space flight completed by a woman: Christina Koch (2020)

In February, NASA astronaut Christina Koch broke records, again, by returning to Earth after a 328-day stint aboard the ISS. In doing so, she gained the record for the longest space flight completed by a woman—surpassing the previous record of 289 days held by Peggy Whitson. During that time, Koch orbited the Earth more than 5,200 times and took part in more than 210 scientific investigations. As Newsweek reported at the time, she completed 42 hours and 15 minutes' worth of spacewalks.

3. First person to walk on the moon: Neil Armstrong (1969)

Neil Armstrong has gone down in history for being the first person to walk on the moon and for the phrase: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." The momentous feat took place during Apollo 11 mission in 1969 very shortly after he and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to land on the moon. The pair spent two hours on the moon, collecting rocks and studying its surface before taking off again.

4. First to dock two vehicles in space: Neil Armstrong and David Scott (1966)

Three years before Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon, Armstrong and David Scott became the first astronauts to dock two spacecraft while in orbit. According to NASA, the achievement paved the way for the moon landing that came later as well as missions to the ISS, but it wasn't always clear it was going to be a success.

The errand appeared to be going well—in a message to mission control, Armstrong described it as a "smoothie"—until the pair had completed the docking and a malfunctioning spacecraft maneuvering thruster caused the capsule to lose control. Though the second part of the mission did not go to plan, re-entry was successful and both Armstrong and Scott were fine.

5. First person to hit a golf ball on the moon: Alan Shepard (1971)

Alan Shepard was the first American in space but was pipped to the global title by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin from the USSR who became the first person in space on April 12, 1961.

However, Shepard can claim to be the first person to hit a golf ball on the moon. Shepard landed on the moon on February 15, 1971, during the Apollo 14 mission, and completed two moonwalks, along with Ed Mitchell. The crew were the first to land on the lunar highlands—i.e. the light areas of the moon—and Shepard was the first to hit a golf ball on its surface. There was a scientific reason for this: it showed how far the ball could travel in the moon's lower gravity.

Alan Shepard
American astronaut Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr (1923 - 1998). Shepard was the first American in space and first person to hit a golf ball on the moon. National Astronaut Day is held on 5 May to mark the day he first took to space. Space Frontiers/Getty

6. The oldest person in space: John Glenn (1998)

John Glenn, a former marine pilot turned U.S. astronaut, became the first American to orbit the Earth, doing so not once but three times in 1962 in a trip that lasted around 5 hours. Along with Alan Shepard, he was part of the first group of astronauts selected by NASA, dubbed the "Mercury Seven."

Glenn left space for politics not long afterward, winning the Senate seat for Oklahoma on the Democrat ticket. But he didn't turn his back on NASA forever—in 1998, Glenn joined six other astronauts on a space shuttle mission 36 years after his first space flight. The expedition earned Glenn the title of being the oldest person to visit space. Aged 77, his work helped NASA learn how being in space affects older people.

7. The furthest distance traveled from Earth: the crew of the Apollo 13 (1970)

John Swigert, Fred Haise and James Lovell were aboard Apollo 13 when it traveled past the far side of the moon and to the furthest point in space humans have flown. At its most distant, on April 15, 1970, the crew were 248,655 miles from the Earth and 158 miles from the lunar surface on the far side of the moon.

The original goal had been to land in the Fra Mauro area but plans had to be altered following an explosion on the spacecraft. In the end, Apollo 13 orbited the moon without landing.

More than 50 years on, it remains the furthest humans have traveled from the Earth's surface.

8. Longest spacewalk: James Voss and Susan Helms (2001)

According to NASA, the average spacewalk lasts between five and eight hours depending on the job, which can vary from fixing the spacecraft to testing new equipment and carrying out scientific experiments. It is quite a bit longer than the 10 minutes cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, from the Soviet Union, spent on the first-ever spacewalk on March 18, 1965.

So far, the longest spacewalk on record goes to James Voss and Susan Helms, who set out to make some repairs in 2001 and spent 8 hours and 56 minutes outside their spacecraft, from 12:12 a.m. EST to 9:08 a.m. EST on March 11.

9. First to orbit the moon: Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders (1968)

Apollo 8 was the first mission to see humans—NASA astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders—successfully orbit the moon and return to the Earth. The mission also gave rise to the first picture of the Earth taken from another planetary body.

Anders took the famous shot on December 24, 1968 when the spacecraft was on its fourth orbit as it was moving from the far side of the moon. The first is in black and white. A second taken immediately afterward is in color. According to NASA, Anders is reported to have seen the Earth rising into view and said: "Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There's the Earth comin' up. Wow, is that pretty!"

Earth rise
Apollo 8 Photo. Image of the Earth taken from the vantage point of the moon. Taken by NASA astronaut Bill Anders in 1969. NASA

10. The highest speed achieved by humans: the crew of Apollo 10 (1969)

Decades later and the crew of Apollo 10—Thomas Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan—retain the record for traveling the fastest speed on anyone in space or on Earth.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the astronauts aboard reached speeds of 24,816.1 miles per hour on May 26, 1969, during the return journey to Earth. However, according to NASA, they may have traveled even faster—the report from the Apollo 10 mission states maximum speed at entry reached 36,397 feet per second, equivalent to 24,816 miles per hour.