Cosmic champions: The astronauts setting records beyond Earth’s atmosphere

Galactic pioneers push the boundaries to redefine space exploration

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Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko took a giant leap into the history books this month after setting a remarkable record for the longest time spent in space.

He joined an elite band of space travellers who have achieved stellar feats in pursuit of unravelling the mysteries of life beyond Earth.

Each record helps shed light on life in space and contributes to the advancement of science, with the “longest stay in space” allowing more extensive research on how microgravity impacts the human body.

The investigations are crucial for future extended missions, such as trips to Mars and beyond.

Here, The National lists some of the record-breaking achievements of these galactic pioneers and the history-setting moments that await future heroes.

First human in space

Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. He was 27 years old.

His spacecraft, Vostok 1, completed an orbit of the Earth within 108 minutes, marking a major milestone in space exploration and making the cosmonaut an international hero.

At the time, the US and the former Soviet Union were in a space race, with engineers working countless hours to get their countryman to orbit first.

Alan Shepard, became the first American in space just weeks after Mr Gagarin, on May 5, 1961.

First woman in space

The Soviets beat the Americans again in the race to get the first woman in space.

Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first female in orbit on June 16, 1963, and circled the Earth 48 times, spending about three days in space.

She became a symbol of female achievement in a male-dominated field and helped to inspire more women astronauts.

Sally Ride made history as the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983.

First human landing on the Moon

With the success of the Soviet space programme and the continuing Cold War, Nasa was under pressure to achieve a Moon landing.

The Soviets had achieved several firsts in space exploration, including the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1961 and the first human in orbit – all which helped to place the nation as a leader in the field.

In 1962, US President John F Kennedy committed the nation to landing a human on the Moon before the end of the decade, with his famous speech, saying: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The Apollo programme was then created, with the Apollo 11 mission that helped astronaut Neil Armstrong become the first man to step foot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, where he famously declared: “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Buzz Aldrin joined him shortly after, while Michael Collins stayed in the command module.

Only the Americans have landed humans on the Moon, but no one has been back since the last Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Longest stay on the Moon

Apollo 17 astronauts hold the record for the longest stay on the Moon, at 75 hours.

There is renewed interest for humans to stay longer on the surface and to send the first woman there.

Longest moonwalk

Apollo 17 astronauts secured another achievement, the longest moonwalk.

Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent seven hours and 37 minutes outside their lunar module.

Longest time in space

The Russian programme has become less prominent in the modern space race, mostly because of financial limitations.

But as a partner country of the International Space Station with a still reliable ride to orbit, the Soyuz, cosmonauts have access to space.

And on February 4, Kononenko became a record-breaker, having spent a cumulative time of more than 878 days and 12 hours in space.

The 59-year-old cosmonaut beat his countryman Gennady Padalka’s record of 878 days, 11 hours, 29 minutes and 48 seconds set in 2015.

Kononenko has been on five missions to the International Space Station since 2008 and is currently on board the orbiting laboratory.

By the end of this expedition, he will have completed 1,000 days in space.

Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the record for the longest single space flight at 437 days and 18 hours, which he set aboard the Mir space station in the mid-1990s.

Longest stay in space by a woman

Nasa was dominated by men in the first space race, but today women are making landmark achievements.

Astronaut Christina Koch set the world record for the longest single space flight by a woman in 2020 when she completed 328 consecutive days aboard the space station.

She beat Peggy Whitson’s record of 289 days, which she had set in 2019.

Ms Koch fell 12 days short of co-worker Scott Kelly, who had held the US record for the longest space flight.

Astronaut Frank Rubio currently holds the US record for the longest consecutive time in space, at 371 days.

His mission was originally only for six months but was extended by another 180 days.

Longest spacewalk

Nasa astronauts James Voss and Susan Helms broke the world record for the longest spacewalk on March 10, 2001, with their walk taking eight hours and 56 minutes.

Astronauts Pierre Thuot, Richard Hieb and Thomas Akers held the previous record of eight hours and 29 minutes in 1992.

Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, who is now Minister of State for Youth Affairs, became the first Arab to perform a spacewalk in 2023 when he spent almost seven hours outside the ISS carrying out maintenance work.

First all-women spacewalk

In October 2019, an all-female spacewalk took place when Nasa astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir ventured outside the ISS for more than seven hours.

It was a significant achievement and highlighted the growing role of women in space exploration.

After their venture, the women wrote a Washington Post op-ed expressing their aims to remove “faulty stereotypes built up by decades of limited-size spacesuits”.

They emphasised the importance of their technicians and trainers, who enabled them to safely execute their tasks.

First space tourist

American engineer and entrepreneur Dennis Tito reportedly paid $20 million to fly to the space station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in 2001.

He spent nearly eight days in orbit as the first space tourist.

First person to fly untethered in space

In 1984, Nasa’s Bruce McCandless became the first astronaut to float untethered in space using a special spacesuit, called the Manned Manoeuvring Unit.

He ventured up to about 95 metres away from the Space Shuttle, creating an iconic image of human space exploration.

The records still to come:

First person on a commercial space station

The ISS has been a pivotal platform for advancing space exploration and serving as a laboratory for microgravity research and a test bed for technologies.

But, as the structure ages and becomes too expensive for space agencies, the focus has shifted to commercialising low-Earth orbit and retiring the space station.

Companies such as Axiom Space, Blue Origin and Nanoracks are racing to build the first private station in orbit.

The first person who enters it will float their way into the record books.

First human on a lunar-orbiting station

Space agencies are now focusing on building a station that orbits the Moon and returning humans to the surface.

Nasa has plans to build the Moon-orbiting station Lunar Gateway, with other space agencies from the UAE, Europe, Canada and Japan who will help to develop it.

It will be a history-making moment when an astronaut enters the station, or when the first human since the 1970s sets foot on the Moon.

First human to land on Mars

While space agencies and companies hope to create a human presence on the Moon, the ultimate goal is to launch rockets from there so astronauts can travel to Mars.

The UAE has ambitious plans to build a settlement on the Red Planet by 2117.

The US and China have rovers and orbiters operating on Mars so they can gather data on the planet.

Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist at Western University in Canada, told The National that sending humans there would help scientists understand the planet much better.

“The amount of ground that a rover covers in many years can be accomplished by astronauts within a few days,” said Mr Osinski, who has been selected by Nasa for the Artemis 3 geology team.

“Astronauts can also collect many kilograms of samples, compared to the hundreds of grams that a robotic mission might eventually return to Earth.

“Humans also have a better situational awareness of their surroundings and, with the long-time delay for communications between Earth and Mars (up to 40 minutes), they can make decisions on the spot and generally improvise in a way that robots will never be able to.”

Updated: February 11, 2024, 12:05 PM