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Von Braun and Korolev
One of the mysteries of the top 100 results is why von Braun (left) was ranked near the top while his Russian counterpart, Korolev (right), ranked near the bottom. (credit: NASA/Intl. Space Hall of Fame)

Deconstructing the “Top 100”

At the Paris Air Show last month, Aviation Week magazine unveiled its list of the top 100 “stars” of aviation and aerospace. The list, timed to coincide with the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, was intended to highlight the leading contributors to aviation in the last century (although the list includes a few people whose contributions predate the Wrights, going as far back as da Vinci.)

The 100 people named came from a group of 760 nominees, selected by the magazine. A select group of people—primarily members of professional societies like the AIAA as well as Aviation Week subscribers—then voted online to cull the list to the 100 announced in Paris. The restricted voting was designed to “ensure the credibility and professional caliber of the Top 100 results”: evidently the AvWeek people learned their lesson from previous open online voting efforts, like the Time “Man of the Century” vote that was nearly won by Kemal Ataturk.

Despite these safeguards, the results have come under some scrutiny by outsiders. This is not an uncommon occurrence: people always quibble about the selections for everything from the top 100 films of all time to the 2003 Major League Baseball All-Star Team. Nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting to examine how the results, at least for those involved in space activities, stacked up.

By my estimate, 27 of the top 100 people are or were heavily involved in space in one way or another. There are some judgement calls here: I left off some executives of aerospace companies that have had some role in space, but whose primary influence was on aviation. I also excluded Burt Rutan despite the considerable potential his SpaceShipOne suborbital spacecraft because he is still primarily known, and thus recognized, for his aviation work. In any event, what will prove the most interesting is not the number of space people on the list but the relative positions to one another.

First, here’s the list of the 27 space people from the top 100 list:

2Wernher von Braun
3Robert Goddard
9Neil A. Armstrong
13Buzz Aldrin
15Alan B. Shepard, Jr.
20Jules Verne
25 (tie)Christopher Kraft
30Theodore von Karman
32James Van Allen
37Yuri Gagarin
42Space Shuttle Challenger Crew
47James A. Lovell, Jr.
49 (tie)Thomas H. Kelly
53Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom
56Arthur C. Clarke
65Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
67 (tie)Carl Sagan
67 (tie)Sergey Korolyov
70John W. Young
71Gene Roddenberry
72Valentina Tereshkova
79Sally K. Ride
84H.G. Wells
85Jean-Pierre Haignere
89John H. Glenn, Jr.
90 (tie)James E. Webb
98George Mueller

At first glance, that’s not a bad group of people. It includes prominent rocket designers, managers of the Apollo program, astronauts, cosmonauts (and one “spationaute”), and a scattering of scientists and writers. One can probably make a case for inclusion on the list for most, if not all, of them. On closer examination, though, we see some interesting, and perhaps even bizarre, rankings.

Korolev arguably had as great, if not greater, influence on Soviet/Russian rocketry than von Braun had in Germany or America, yet fared far worse in the poll.

The problems start at the top—and closer to the bottom—of the list. Werner von Braun does very well, finishing second only to the Wright Brothers. That high absolute ranking an be quibbled with, since he comes out ahead of a number of aviation pioneers who arguably have had greater impact, both in the overall industry and aviation in particular, than von Braun had in space. Nonetheless, von Braun’s contributions from the early German amateur rocketry efforts through the race to the Moon are worthy both of inclusion in the list and a high ranking.

However, his Russian counterpart, Sergey Korolyov (more commonly transliterated as Sergei Korolev), fares far worse, finishing in a tie for 67th place with Carl Sagan. (More on Sagan in a bit.) Korolev arguably had as great, if not greater, influence on Soviet/Russian rocketry than von Braun had in Germany or America. As James Harford notes in his excellent biography of Korolev, von Braun’s contributions to the American space program in the 1950s and 60s were matched by a number of other engineers, scientists, and managers. “Korolev, however,” Harford writes, “was by far the dominant figure in the Soviet rocket and space exploration effort.” The effect of that dominance persists to this day: while von Braun’s rocket designs have been consigned to museums, Korolev’s R-7 “Semyorka”, which launched Sputnik over 45 years ago, continues in use to this day in only slightly modified versions as the Soyuz and Molniya rockets.

This raises the question of why Korolev did so poorly in the top 100 poll. He deserves a high ranking, perhaps in the top 10 or 20, and certainly above von Braun. Are the limited members of the electorate who voted on the top 100 still ignorant of Korolev’s accomplishments, biased against Soviet/Russian aerospace accomplishments, or simply thrown off by the less-common spelling of his name on the ballot? None of these answers speak well of the people entrusted to “ensure the credibility and professional caliber” of the balloting.

The selection of astronauts and cosmonauts in the top 100 also raises some questions. The American astronaut corps does quite well, with eight people—Armstrong, Aldrin, Shepard, Lovell, Grissom, Young, Ride, and Glenn—as well as the seven members of the Challenger crew, who share a single spot on the list. Russians, by contrast, can only muster two obvious choices, Gagarin and Tereshkova. Many of these are recognized for their firsts, and deserve some place in the list. However, Grissom, Lovell, and Young seem out of place here, as noteworthy as their accomplishments may be. Replacing them with Alexei Leonov (first spacewalk) and even Viktor Polyakov (flight duration record) would be better, and also acknowledge Russian contributions to space exploration.

The rankings of the space travelers is also open to question. Does Neil Armstrong, who got to be the first man to walk on the Moon because his mission turned out next in the rotation (and because the missions leading up to it were all successful), deserve as ranking in the top ten? And how can anyone explain the strangely low ranking of John Glenn, who is not only lower-ranked than any other astronaut or cosmonaut on the list, he is also several places below Jean-Pierre Haignere, a French “spationaute” whose only claim to fame is a six-month stay on Mir? Indeed, Haignere’s inclusion on the list borders on the bizarre.

Haignere’s inclusion on the list—above Glenn—borders on the bizarre.

There are a few other oddities as well. It’s bad enough that Sergei Korolev is relegated to 67th place on the list. What’s worse, though, is that he is tied with Carl Sagan, a scientist and science popularizer whose biggest contribution to space exploration may be the inclusion of the “sounds of Earth” record on the two Voyager spacecraft. Indeed, Sagan was often a lukewarm advocate, at best, of human space exploration. Putting him on the list at the same rank as Korolev seems poor. At least he finishes above Gene Roddenberry, a TV producer who makes it on the list only because he created the “Star Trek” franchise of series and movies. It makes you wonder if some voters can tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

One can argue with the inclusion of other people on the list and their rankings, but I think the point has been made. Perhaps Aviation Week would have been better served by listing the top 100 people in alphabetical order, with no indication of their relative ranking: it would have eliminated a number of problems with the list. However, the fun that comes from any top 10, 25, or 100 list is the arguing about the rankings. Instead, perhaps Aviation Week should have opened up the voting to the public at large via the Internet. The people who would have been motivated enough to vote would likely be just as educated about aviation and space history as the exclusive group that gave us this mixed-up list. We’ll just have to run the risk that Ataturk could win.