The first American in space, Alan Shepard, made his historic flight fifty years ago. Part of Project Mercury, the flight of Freedom 7 followed mere weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering spaceflight. The Space Race was underway!

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The man who went ballistic: Alan Shepard poses in a spacesuit. (Image credit: NASA)

“Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

NASA astronaut Alan Shepard was letting his frustration show after facing more than five hours of delays before he was due to blast off into spaceon May 5, 1961.  They eventually did “light the candle” and this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of that flight. But why have we dedicated to devote an Astronotes article to it? Well, the flight made Alan Shepard the first American in space!

Shepard was born in Derry, New Hampshire on 18 November 1923. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1944 he began his career serving on the USS Cogswell and married Louise Brewer whom he had met whilst training. His aim was to be a naval fighter pilot and he achieved this by entering flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas and Pensacola, Florida, and was awarded his naval wings in 1947. He logged more than 8000 hours flying time! In 1959 he was among 110 test pilots invited by the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to volunteer for the first manned space flight program. This number was to be whittled down to just seven, and Shepard it appears had what they wanted, after gruelling tests he was selected to be a Mercury astronaut. The other six were Malcolm (Scott) Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Walter (Wally) Schirra and Donald (Deke) Slayton. To understand the frenetic atmosphere these pioneering days, run to your nearest library and borrow Tom Wolfe’s classic The Right Stuff (1979).

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Magnificent Seven: The lucky first astronauts recruited by NASA. (Image credit: NASA)

Of the seven astronauts, Shepard was chosen to be the first American man to go to space (note that most people outside of the USSR believed that he would be the first human being in space). He was pleased to know that he had “the right stuff” to be lobbed into the sky on top of a Redstone missile. The flight of his tiny Mercury capsule was originally due to take place on October 1960, however technical delays seen it postponed a number of times. Then on 12 April 1961, the unthinkable happened. The Soviets had caught the American flat-footed when they launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Gagarin became the first man in space and the famous Space Race began! 23 days later the Americans would follow in the Soviets’ footsteps.

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A relaxed looking Shepard enters Freedom 7. (Image credit: NASA)

After endless delays the day had come when Alan Shepard finally made his way into the Freedom 7 spacecraft, it was 5 May 1961. However, the delays were not over as he was faced with a six hour wait whilst technical issues were examined. Can you imagine what must have been going around in his head for that length of time and then Gordon Cooper at Mission Control heard the inevitable….

Shepard: “Man, I gotta go pee”.

Cooper: “You’re kidding me”.

Shepard: “Nope. Check and see if I can get out to relieve myself”.

Having checked Cooper came back with a negative, to which Shepard replied that if they did not let him out he would go in his suit! The technicians feared that this could cause problems with the electronics and eventually decided to turn off the electronics. A few minutes later Shepard said, “Well, I’m a wetback now”. (Video from Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film of The Right Stuff: Shepard is played by Scott Glen.)

Shepard was then finally fired 116 miles (187 km) into the air from Cape Canaveral and became the second man to slip the surly bonds of Earth. There were over 45 million Americans watching and listening as the flight was beamed live on TV. Shepard reached a point of weightlessness four minutes into the flight and radioed back messages about what he experienced. The American did not have a window to look out of, instead he had a periscope and radioed back, “What a magnificent view” as he looked through it. However he would later admit that there was very little to actually see and was exaggerating for the benefit of those watching back on Earth. Although overshadowed by Gagarin, Shepard did make history as he took manually control of the spacecraft, something the Soviet did not do in his Vostok 1 flight.

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Freedom 7 finally blasts off with Shepard onboard! (Image credit:NASA)

As he re-entered Earth’s atmosphere he was met with a crushing 11 gee load and found it difficult to talk, just grunting that he was “OK” to mission control. He touched down 302 miles (486 km) east of Cape Canaveral where a rescue helicopter met and took him to the USS Lake Champlian. Unlike Gagarin’s flight, Freedom 7 did not orbit the Earth but simply went up and back down again in a ballistic arc but Shepard did become the first astronaut to safely return to Earth inside his vehicle. In the Vostok 1 mission Gagarin had parachuted out from the vehicle prior to landing, something the Soviets  kept under wraps for many years! Once onboard the Lake Champlian, Shepard was met with a hero’s reception from the crew before being checked over by the doctors. On his 15 minutes and 28 seconds flight into space he had lost three pounds in weight, but doctors reported him to be in good spirits and in fine shape. The craft was also reported to be in excellent condition, so much so that engineers said it could have been used again!

The President of the United States of America at the time, John F. Kennedy, was thrilled that the flight was so successful and had ambitious ideas for the future of space flight. He set the goal of sending men to the Moon before the decade was out. Unfortunately Kennedy would never see his dream become a reality, Shepard however actually would! Not only would he see but he would also experience it first hand. But first he would have to overcome Ménière’s Disease which is an ailment affecting the inner ear causing problems with balance and would render him unable to fly.

See how the first American astronauts flew in space on NASA's Mercury space capsules in this infographic.
Source All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

After successful corrective surgery Shepard was ready to begin training for the Apollo program which proved to be a lot more intense than the Mercury program. Because he was getting over his surgery it was deemed that he needed more rest and was thus dropped as commander for the Apollo 13 mission. This could be looked upon as a stroke of luck as the Apollo 13 mission never actually made it to the Moon as we all know from the famous Tom Hanks movie of the same name. Instead Shepard was placed on the Apollo 14 mission whichsuffered a four month delay due to the problems of the previous mission, but this is something Shepard should have been used to!

As the oldest astronaut in the Apollo program Shepard made his second flight as commander of Apollo 14 at the age of 47 on 31 January 1971. Whilst on the Moon Shepard famously played a little golf as this mission became the first to successfully broadcast colour pictures from the Lunar surface. Following Apollo 14 Shepard returned to his position as chief of the Astronaut Office in June 1971 and was also promoted to rear admiral before retiring from the Navy and NASA in August 1974.  Alan Shepard passed away after illness on 21 July 1998 which coincidently was the 29th anniversary of the first moonwalk.

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50th Anniversary banner: Mercury 3 was the mission, Freedom 7 was the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

To celebrate the anniversary NASA is holding a commemorative ceremony at Launch Pad 5, where the manned space program all began. There will also be special stamps going on sale on May 4. Also, the Freedom 7 is now on display at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center at Annapolis in America.

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Get your collectors' stamps on May 4th! (Image credit: NASA)

It is hard to believe that in this remarkable fifty year period, since Shepard’s flight, NASA has advanced human space exploration through more than 1,500 manned and unmanned flights. Here’s to another successful 50 years!

Image of Sinead McNicholl

Sinead McNicholl, Education Support Officer (Image credit: Armagh Planetarium)

(Article by Sinead McNicholl)


Paul Evans · May 4, 2011 at 13:34

That’s an excellent article Sinead, well researched and full of facts. Of course between 1961 and 1971 Alan Shepard was grounded for medical reasons, but he was far from idle – in fact he managed the Astronaut Office jointly with Deke Slayton who was similarly grounded. I’d recommend the book “Moon Shot” written by these two men in about 1994 as excellent background on Project Apollo – it covers a lot of the reasoning behind why many decisons were taken including the logic that resulted in Neil Armstrong taking that first “small step”.

Thanks for posting!


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