Thirty-one years ago today, astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, earning a special place on our country’s long list of heroic pioneers. Today Ride is one of 87 members of the Astronaut Hall of Fame near Cape Canaveral, which is included on many student trips to Florida. For a taste of their stories, here’s a glimpse at five particularly notable NASA astronauts, starting with Ride.
Sally Ride joined NASA in 1978, and on June 18, 1983, as a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger, she became the first American woman in space. Before that, Ride had helped develop the space shuttle’s robot arm and had served as a ground-based capsule communicator. She flew on one more shuttle mission, ending up with a grand total of 343 hours in space.
Fun Fact: During high school, Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player.
Alan Shepard was the first American in space, flying aboard the Freedom 7 capsule on May 5, 1961. Among the most famous of the original Mercury Seven astronauts (the men who piloted the first American space flights in the early 1960s), Shepard had previously been an aviator in the U.S. Navy and a test pilot. Shepard walked on the Moon in 1971.
Fun Fact: Shepard was a descendant of famous Mayflower passenger Richard Warren. (Apparently, taking historic voyages runs in the family.)
Also a member of the Mercury Seven, John Glenn is famously the first American to orbit the Earth. On February 20, 1962, he circled the Earth three times on a flight that lasted just short of five hours. In 1998, at age 77, he flew on space shuttle Discovery and became the oldest person to travel in space. He was also a U.S. Senator from Ohio for 25 years.
Fun Fact: During the Korean War, Glenn flew missions with hall of fame baseball player Ted Williams as his wingman.
Jim Lovell was the commander on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, which was made even more famous by the 1995 movie starring Tom Hanks. After a major onboard malfunction seemed to doom the crew, Lovell managed to bring them safely back to Earth against all odds (spoiler alert!). Before Apollo 13, Lovell had been the command module pilot of Apollo 8, which was the first mission to enter lunar orbit. He was also the first person to fly in space four times.
Fun Fact: On his Gemini and Apollo flights, Lovell saw a total of 269 sunrises from space.
On July 21, 1969, at 02:56 UTC, Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon. Over the next two and a half hours, Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin unveiled a commemorative plaque, planted an American flag, had a phone call with President Nixon, set up some scientific instruments, went for a walk, and left some memorial items to honor astronauts who had died in previous years.
Fun Fact: Armstrong’s original astronaut application arrived at NASA about a week past the deadline, but a former co-worker noticed it and slipped it into the pile.
These five astronauts are just the tip of the iceberg. You can learn about dozens more at the Hall of Fame, which is part of the Kennedy Space Center—hear the astronauts’ stories and see a huge collection of artifacts and memorabilia from six-plus decades of the American space program.