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.