Today in history, the first American in history traveled to space. Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr’s suborbital flight was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 5, 1961. Shepard was the second human being to enter space, behind Russia’s Yuri Gagarin.
The road to man the Freedom 7 space capsule was a long one. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1957 Sputnik 1 flight, the world’s first artificial satellite, America scrambled to save face. The United States had previously been complacently satisfied in its technological edge over the USSR. President Eisenhower established NASA on October 1, 1958, to play a fast game of catch-up.
One of NASA’s first initiatives was Project Mercury, whose aim was to put a living man in Earth’s orbit and keep him living. NASA began its long vetting process to find a good candidate, drawing 508 military test pilots to volunteer. A candidate was required to be forty years old or younger, have a bachelor’s degree and be under 5’11”. The candidate pool was winnowed down to 110 men. Those 110 would be further consolidated into 32 candidates.
After a rigorous training regimen, NASA chose seven men to be initiated as the country’s first astronauts. Shepard was selected to man the Freedom 7 flight.
On may 18, 1959, the seven men observed a test launch of an SM-65D Atlas rocket, which was very similar to the rocket that was to carry Shepard into space. Shortly after takeoff, the rocket exploded. Shepard reportedly turned to John Glenn and said, “Well, I’m glad they got that out of the way.”
Thankfully, Shepard made it to space unharmed. The Freedom 7 spent fifteen minutes in its suborbital flight, reaching 116 miles high before Shepard returned to the planet’s surface intact. It was a moment of national pride.
The USSR continued to lead the United States in space travel technology until the late 1960’s. The space race reached its conclusive end in July of 1969, when the Apollo 11 sent three astronauts to the moon and back. On February 5. 1971, Alan Shepard became the fifth astronaut to ever set foot on the moon, during the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.
Shepard was diagnosed with leukemia in 1996. The cancer took his life on July 21, 1998. He was the second astronaut to die who had walked on the moon, behind Jim Irwin, who died in 1991. Shepard’s wife Louise died five weeks later, at 5pm, the time when Shepard called her every day.
Alan Shepard is remembered as a man of great ability and courage.