Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first American in space. At 9:37 AM on May 5, 1961, the Freedom 7 spacecraft, now a Smithsonian artifact, was launched from Cape Canaveral, lobbing Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard Jr. (1923-1998) to an altitude of 116.5 miles. Shepard tested out the spacecraft's attitude control systems during the five minutes of weightlessness he had at the top of the trajectory, then he parachuted safety into the Atlantic Ocean, 303 miles downrange.
"The whole thing lasted 15 minutes and 28 seconds," says Michael Neufeld, curator in the Space History Division of the Air and Space Museum. "It was a short trip, but it gave a lot of confidence that the Mercury spacecraft was becoming ready to carry out the orbital mission ."
The primary purpose of this mission was to put an American in space, but the Mercury Redstone suborbital flights, of which Freedom was one, were also intended to test the spacecraft's Mercury capsule and booster to make sure that the capsule would be ready for orbital flight. Another objective was to prove that astronauts were ready to fly in space, allaying concerns about their medical well-being. With the success of Shepard's flight, he became the second man in space, after the Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin, who completed an orbit of the Earth less than a month earlier on April 12, 1961. Shepard, by comparison, was launched on suborbital hop. "It wasn't as impressive as the Soviet accomplishment, clearly," says Neufeld, "on the other hand, the fact that the U.S. did the whole thing in full view of the press and the world—as opposed to Soviet secrecy— made a positive impression on a lot of people domestically and internationally." Especially since the success of the mission was not guaranteed at that point.
Alan Shepard was born in East Derry, New Hampshire on November 18, 1923. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1944, Shepard served on a destroyer in WWII. After the war, Shepard went to flight school and received his wings in 1947. Afterwards, Shepard trained as a Navy test pilot and would work in that capacity throughout the 1950s until his selection as a Mercury astronaut in 1959. Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program in the U.S. Out of the seven astronauts chosen for the program, Alan Shepard, Jr., John Glenn, Jr., and Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom, were selected as the first three to fly and concentrate on the Mercury Redstone mission. Of those three, Shepard was chosen to launch the Freedom 7.
"Shepard, I think was fundamentally chosen because he just came out as the best of the seven, as far as leadership of the program was concerned, the sharpest, the best trained of them," says Neufeld.
Mercury had two boosters (used to lift the spacecraft) and two mission profiles, one of which was to conduct these early flights. The Freedom 7 was launched in a smaller Redstone rocket and could be classified as just a suborbital hop, in preparation for the Mercury mission to put a man in orbit, which Glenn would do in February of 1962. But with its success, Shepard became the first American in space.
After the Mercury Program was ended to make way for Gemini, Shepard was grounded for an inner ear condition called Ménière’s disease. After corrective surgery, Shepard was put back on flight status and became commander of Apollo 14, which successfully landed on the Fra Mauro highlands section of the Moon in February 1971. He would be the only astronaut from the Mercury program to land on the Moon. The purpose of the mission was to collect lunar samples from this volcanic area on the moon in an effort to help scientists understand the history of the moon and the solar system. But what most people remember is Shepard hitting a couple of golf balls at the end of his second Moonwalk.
"The golf was kind of a joke at the end, but that's the only thing anyone wants to remember about Apollo 14," Neufeld says.
Alan Shepard died in 1998. Yesterday, the U.S. Postal Service dedicated a stamp to the astronaut and the anniversary of the Freedom 7.
See the Freedom 7 capsule, on display in the Visitor's Center at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. For other human spacecrafts, visit the collections on display at the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall and at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.