May 5, 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the first American manned spaceflight, flown by Alan Shepard in 1961. This came less than a month after Yuri Gagarin, a Russian, became the first human to orbit Earth once.
The first American to orbit Earth was John Glenn, aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.
Alan Shepard was one of 110 test flight pilots who volunteered for NASA’s manned space flight program – Project Mercury – in 1959. NASA selected him and six other pilots to be part of the project. All of the pilots went through a rigorous training regimen before NASA made a final selection. Of these magnificent seven, America’s first astronauts, NASA chose Shepard to become the first American to travel into space.
Unlike his Russian counterpart, Shepard did not orbit the Earth. Instead, his Freedom 7 spacecraft undertook a suborbital flight, breaching space and quickly reentering, following a trajectory common to ICBMs and space planes like the X-15. He traveled 302 miles (nearly 500 km) and achieved a maximum altitude of 116 miles (nearly 200 km) before splashing down.
If not for delays, Shepard would have beat Gagarin to become the first human in space.
The Freedom 7 flight was initially scheduled to take place in October of 1960, but was postponed to March 6 and eventually to May 5, 1961. As it was, millions watched his flight and recovery on televisioin.
The astronaut had no shortage of humor in the time after his flight, commenting:
It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.
Unlike Gagarin, Shepard not only got to witness the Apollo moon landing but also got to take part in the later Apollo 14 mission in 1971. While on the moon, the astronaut famously hit two golf balls though the airless, low gravity environment.
Shepard retired from NASA in 1974 and went into private business in Texas until his death in 1998. By the end of his career he had logged almost 217 hours of time in space. Nine of those hours were spent on the moon. But the world will never forget May 5, 2011 – the 50th anniversary of the first American manned spaceflight – flown by Alan Shepard in 1961.
Eric Villard is a writer who enjoys anything related to science and technology, from the newest geeky gadget to the latest Hubble unveiling. He always tries to keep one eye above the horizon. To him, discovery is the essence of mankind. Without it we'd still be huddled around fires in dank caves, with sticks and stones for tools and mud and rock walls for ink and parchment.