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This date in science: First American in space

Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. His suborbital flight took place just three weeks after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth once.

Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr., in his silver pressure suit with the helmet visor closed, prepares for his Mercury Redstone 3 launch on May 5, 1961. Image Credit: NASA

Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr., in his silver pressure suit with the helmet visor closed, prepares for his historic flight into space. Date of photo: April 20, 1961. Image via NASA

Alan Shepard in his flight suit

May 5, 1961. Just 23 days after Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union became the first person in space, NASA launched astronaut Alan Shepard aboard the Freedom 7 capsule powered by a Redstone booster to become the first American in space. His historic flight began from Cape Canaveral in Florida lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds, before a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

During the rocket’s acceleration, Shepard experienced 6.3 g, or 6.3 times his normal weight, just before shut down of the Redstone engine, two minutes and 22 seconds after liftoff. Soon after, America’s first space traveler got his first view of the Earth and became one of the first astronauts to say:

What a beautiful view.

His spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic, 302 miles (486 km) from Cape Canaveral, where he and Freedom 7 were recovered by helicopter and transported to the awaiting aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain. After his flight, the astronaut said humorously:

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.

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 had 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.

Early NASA film showing the type of training undergone by the early astronauts

Fifty-four years ago on May 5, 1961 only 23 days after Yuri Gagarin of the then-Soviet Union became the first person in space, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard launched at 9:34 a.m. EDT aboard his Freedom 7 capsule powered by a Redstone booster to become the first American in space. His historic flight lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds. Image Credit: NASA

Trajectory of Alan Shepard’s flight aboard Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. Image via NASA.

NASA launched Alan Shepard into space against a backdrop of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had launched Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, aboard a spacecraft named Vostok (Russian for East). Gagarin completed a single orbit of the Earth, landing after a flight of one hour and 29 minutes. He became a hero in the Soviet Union and around the world.

Three weeks later, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard flew aboard a Mercury spacecraft he named Freedom 7. Kurt Debus, who was NASA’s Launch Operations director at the time and who would go on to serve as the first director of the Kennedy Space Center, said years later:

We knew we were in a competitive situation. But, we never permitted the pressure to make us take risks that might endanger Shepard’s life or the success of the mission.

Just weeks after Shepard’s flight, the Space Race began to heat up. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a stirring speech before a joint session of Congress, in which he declared his intention to focus U.S. efforts on landing humans on the moon within a decade. Among other things, he said:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

The first human footsteps on the moon took place on July 20, 1969.

Read more from NASA: Shepard’s Mercury flight Was first step on the long journey to Mars

By the way, the private spaceflight company Blue Origin has a reusable launch system – a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing rocket now being developed for suborbital space tourism – named for Alan Shepard. The New Shepard launch vehicle is a tribute to the fact that he ascended to space on a suborbital trajectory similar to that planned by Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon.com founder and businessman Jeff Bezos.

The recent flight and landing of the reusable New Shepard rocket was intended to test its engines ability to restart quickly at high thrust. Image via Blue Origin.

April 2, 2016, launch of the reusable New Shepard rocket – named for Alan Shepard. Image via Blue Origin.

Bottom line: Alan Shepard’s historic first American flight into space aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft took place on May 5, 1961.

Deborah Byrd

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