Who’s been to space? Learn more about historic space explorers

Commercial spaceflight will increase number of people to visit space

NASA astronaut Mae Jemison looks out the aft flight deck ports on Space Shuttle Endeavour's STS-47 mission in 1998. Jemison was the first African-American woman to reach space. (Image: NASA file photo)
NASA astronaut Mae Jemison looks out the aft flight deck ports on Space Shuttle Endeavour's STS-47 mission in 1998. Jemison was the first African-American woman to reach space. (Image: NASA file photo)

ORLANDO, Fla. – In the last six decades, 556 people have dared to go where a small group of Earth residents ever will: space.

Every mission to low-Earth orbit or beyond is dangerous and no small feat. The small group of people who have earned their astronaut wings were often doing something for the first time for humankind.

The number of people who go to space is expected to grow soon.

With companies such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Boeing and Blue Origin poised to begin flying paying customers to space the Federal Aviation Administration started a new Commercial Astronaut Wings Program to recognize flight crew on a spaceflight for a FAA-licensed mission. A person earns those wings if they complete the required flight training and successfully reach 50 statute miles above the Earth’s surface. Two Virgin Galactic pilots successfully earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings after flying the SpaceShipTwo space plane in December to nearly 51 miles above Earth.

Read on to learn more about this historic group of humans who have been to space.

The first two: The Soviet Union beat the U.S. to send a man into space by less than a month. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, 27, became the first human to travel into space and the first to orbit Earth.

Three weeks later May 16, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in his spacecraft he nicknamed Freedom 7. Ten years later, Shepard would walk on the moon during Apollo 14.

First spacewalker: Russian/Soviet Union Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first person to complete a spacewalk, also known as an extravehicular activity, or EVA, on March 18, 1965.

First woman in space: Russian Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to go into space June 16, 1963. She was also considered the first civilian in space as the Soviet Union space program technically had no female pilots at the time.

While the Soviet Union flew the first two women in space, only two women have flown for Roscosmos since 1984 and the Russian space agency currently only has one female cosmonaut: Anna Kikina.

Kikina is currently training in Star City, Russia, with other cosmonauts and astronauts but does not have a spaceflight planned right now.

Almost exactly 20 years after Tereshkova became the first woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride launched on space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, becoming the first American woman to earn her astronaut wings.

First African-American woman in space: Nearly a decade after Ride's spaceflight, Mae Jemison would become the first African-American woman to reach space during Space Shuttle Endeavour 's September 1992 mission.

That Endeavour flight marked several firsts: It was the 50th space shuttle mission, the first time a Japanese astronaut went to space in a shuttle -- Mamoru Mohri -- and the first and only time a married couple went to space together, Nancy Jan Davis and Mark Lee. Davis and Lee were secretly married a few weeks before the mission.

See a breakdown below of who's been to space by the numbers.

While 37 countries have astronauts, a majority of the 556 people who have visited space come from seven countries.

Of the current international space programs, there are at least five different names for "astronaut."

The Russians call them cosmonauts, in China they are called taikonauts, and if you're a space traveler from India, you're called a vyomonaut. An astronaut from Finland is called a sisunautti.

Finland has no men or women training to be a sisunatti, but NASA astronaut Timothy Kopra, who has been to space three times, was born in Finland.

Take a look at the map below to see where astronauts are from.

About the Authors: