Deconstructing the “Top 100”
by A.J. Mackenzie
|2||Wernher von Braun|
|9||Neil A. Armstrong|
|15||Alan B. Shepard, Jr.|
|25 (tie)||Christopher Kraft|
|30||Theodore von Karman|
|32||James Van Allen|
|42||Space Shuttle Challenger Crew|
|47||James A. Lovell, Jr.|
|49 (tie)||Thomas H. Kelly|
|53||Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom|
|56||Arthur C. Clarke|
|67 (tie)||Carl Sagan|
|67 (tie)||Sergey Korolyov|
|70||John W. Young|
|79||Sally K. Ride|
|89||John H. Glenn, Jr.|
|90 (tie)||James E. Webb|
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.