May 5th, 2021

Alan Shepard: First American in Space, 60 Years Ago Today

Alan Shepard became the first American in space sixty years ago today.  This is his story.

Freedom 7


Alan Shepard was launched from Pad LC-5 in a Mercury Redstone-3 Rocket at 9:34am EST, May 5, 1961.  It was one month after the Soviets, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, accomplished the feat first.  The Americans were trying desperately to catch up in the Space Race and they were “way behind” in the early stages of the contest.

Shepard on the USS Champlain

Shepard’s rocket went up and headed east over the Atlantic Ocean.  Reaching a maximum altitude of 101.2 nautical miles.  Fifteen minutes and twenty eight seconds later it landed in the Atlantic and Shepard was plucked from his floating capsule by a helicopter and brought to the USS Lake Champlain.  He became a national celebrity.

Prior to Freedom 7

Alan Shepard was born in Derry, New Hampshire in 1923.  He attended the US Naval Academy and graduated with the Class of 1945.  The Class graduated a year early (standard procedure during World War II) and Shepard went to sea on a Destroyer, the USS Cogswell.  While on board the ship was both torpedoed and attached by kamikazes.  The Cogswell, and Shepard, were present at the surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.

Recovery in the Atlantic

After the war, Alan Shepard attended flight training at Corpus Christi in Texas.  After initial struggles, Shepard graduated in 1947.  He flew the F4U. Eventually he was tapped to become a Naval test pilot at Patuxent River (Pax River) where he flew the F2H Banshee, among a number of other aircraft.  He was selected to the astronaut corps as part of the Mercury Seven in 1959.

After Freedom 7

Shortly before the Gemini program began, Shepard was grounded due to Meniere’s Disease (an inner ear malfunction that causes dizziness).  He sat out for the entire Gemini Program.  Finally, he regained flight status after surgery repaired the inner ear aliment in 1969. 

Apollo XIV

He was selected to command the Apollo XIV Mission (on the heels of the Apollo XIII explosion).   Into space again at age 47, he had longer hair and sideburns.  He also hit a two golf ball on the moon.

His Hallmarks

Shepard was known for a number of things away from NASA.  He disliked the attention garnered on him and his family (with their loss of privacy) with their exclusive Life Magazine contract.  He reportedly, however, didn’t mind cashing the checks.

Boarding Freedom 7

He went on to real estate development and banking.  His wise cracking was well known, and he loved to laugh.  In the movie The Right Stuff Shepard’s love for the fictitious comedic character of the late 1950s, Jose Jimenez, and his imitation of the same was legendary.

However, my favorite memory is a line from the same movie.  When Shepard is asked if he would like to try out for the Mercury Seven, he says, “Sounds dangerous”.

“It is, yes, very, very dangerous” is the reply of the government men.

Count me in” he replies with a wiry smile.  They did, and now we do, these sixty years later.

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