But this century holds potential for new milestones in space exploration, the kind that can turn spacefarers into celebrities. The next Neil Armstrong could already be in NASA’s astronaut corps, which is more diverse now than ever before. This person will have charisma and steely resolve—and probably a very compelling Instagram account.
Read: The next big milestone in American spaceflight
There is no distinct formula that makes astronauts famous, but an obvious component is novelty, says Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the space-history department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Firsts—Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, delivering his famous line after he put his boot down—become indelible in public memory. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, is probably the most well-known American female astronaut.
Other superlatives, especially of the Guinness World Records variety—the most, the longest, the oldest—can make astronauts, if not flat-out famous, at least memorable. Peggy Whitson, for example, holds the record for most spacewalks by a woman. Seconds can be even less sticky. Do you remember, for instance, what the commander of Apollo 12, the second moon-landing mission, said when he descended from the lander and touched the gray surface? Or what his name was? Twelve men have walked on the moon, and even those in the space community might struggle to name all of them. Many people don’t realize that there was a third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission: Michael Collins, who stayed behind in the command module while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went to the surface.
Some firsts, of course, can be eclipsed by later, bigger firsts. Alan Shepard was heralded as a national hero when he became the first American to reach space in 1961, less than a month after Yuri Gagarin did it for the Soviet Union. When John Glenn flew a year later, he didn’t just pierce the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space; he circled the planet three times. It was a more intense mission, and Glenn came up with a memorable tagline for it, which he repeated for years to come: “Zero G and I feel fine.” Today, Glenn is arguably the more famous of the two. As NASA grew its astronaut corps in the 1960s, astronauts “needed slightly more extraordinary circumstances to break out of the pack and become that household name,” Weitekamp says. Even milestone “firsts” didn’t always make a lasting impression in the national imagination; the first NASA astronauts of color to travel to space—Guion Bluford, who flew on the shuttle in 1983, and Mae Jemison, who followed in 1992—are icons in the space community, but less well known to laypeople.
The first all-female spacewalk, conducted last fall by Koch and Jessica Meir, drew a great deal of attention, and if it ever materialized, so would the first all-female crew on the ISS. When NASA astronauts launch on a brand-new SpaceX transportation system sometime this year, the first endeavor of its kind, the passengers’ names will most certainly cut through the news cycle. But such milestones, on their own, are unlikely to bestow astronauts with mythical status.