Alan Shepard – the First American to Leave the Earth

On this day in 1961, Cmdr. Alan Shepard, Jr. becomes the first American in space when his Freedom 7 spacecraft blasts off from Cape Canaveral. It was the first manned flight of Project Mercury, with a rudimentary objective and monster political implications.

Shepard’s mission was a 15-minute suborbital flight with the primary objective of demonstrating his ability to withstand the high g-forces of launch and atmospheric re-entry. Ten years later, Shepard would leave Earth’s atmosphere again for a total mission time of 9 days,1 minute 58 seconds, to become the fifth man to walk on the moon–and the first one to play golf there.

A graduate of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Shepard saw action with the surface navy during World War 2, became a naval aviator in 1946, and a test pilot in 1950. He was selected as one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts in 1959, having logged over 3,600 hours of often-dangerous flying time.

Sitting ready for launch atop the not-so-safe Mercury Redstone rocket, a modified ICBM based loosely on German V-2 designs, Shepard later remarked that what passed through his mind was “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.” When questioned about his splashdown, Shepard quipped “It’s not the fall that hurts; it’s the sudden stop.”

Although the Yanks were beaten into space three weeks earlier by the Soviet’s Yuri Gagarin, Shepard was celebrated as a national hero, and honored with ticker-tape parades in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. He received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, retired a Rear Admiral and is one of 12 humans to walk on the Moon.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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