The Sciences

60 Years Ago, Alan Shepard Became the First American in Space

The story of how America safely sent its first man into space, causing an anxious nation to collectively exhale a sigh of relief.

By Ben EvansMay 5, 2021 1:20 PM
AlanShepardFreedom7
On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard (left) carried out the first American spaceflight, climbing some 116 miles (188 km) above Earth's surface with the help of a V-2-inspired Redstone rocket (right). (Credit: NASA)

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Early on May 5, 1961, the United States came to a standstill. A Philadelphia judge halted all court proceedings, crowds in Times Square sang and danced, and California traffic slowed to a crawl. Taverns even offered free champagne to revelers. In the White House, President John F. Kennedy stood dumbstruck, with his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his eyes fixed on an unlikely television picture. For, on this late spring morning 60 years ago, America safely sent its first man into space, causing an anxious nation to collectively exhale a sigh of relief.

That man was 37-year-old Alan Shepard, a gruff New Englander and progeny of a wealthy and fiercely loyal military family. His boundless energy had propelled him two grades ahead at school, while an adventurous spirit, keen wit, and a single-minded determination to be the best led the U.S. Navy to handpick Shepard to test its most advanced aircraft.

But more than once, Shepard’s fearless antics almost got him court-martialed. For instance, he had once looped his jet over and under Maryland’s half-built Chesapeake Bay Bridge, ‘flat-hatting’ a military parade and buzzing sunbathing beachgoers in Ocean City.

Shepard Gets Selected

Chosen in 1959 as one of NASA’s original “Mercury Seven” astronauts, Shepard’s thirst for pushing boundaries would ultimately carry him to the Moon. Still, his selection as America’s first space traveler was undoubtedly his proudest accomplishment. “Not because of the fame or the recognition,” Shepard once said, “but because America’s best test pilots went through this selection process, down to seven guys, and of those seven, I was the one to go.”

NASA's first astronaut crew, the "Mercury Seven," pose for a portrait. Front row, left to right: Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. (Credit: NASA)

After learning of his important role in early 1961, Shepard embraced his wife, Louise Shepard, and told her that she had her arms around the world’s first spaceman. But her reply was not quite what he had expected. “Who let a Russian in here?” she playfully jibed. She knew the Soviet’s had already launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, put dogs into orbit, and flown probes to the Moon. Sending a man into space, surely, was next on their list.

Louise Shepard’s offhand remark returned to bite on April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin carried out the first human spaceflight by riding Vostok 1 around the planet, returning to instant global fame. The United States had missed yet another chance to be first, remaining firmly behind a communist empire.

“We had ’em by the short hairs,” Shepard growled, “and we gave it away.”

Shepard Prepares for Space

In the pre-dawn darkness of May 5, as Shepard climbed aboard the Freedom 7 capsule at Cape Canaveral’s Pad 5, he knew that catching the Russians would take a little time. His 83-foot-tall (25 meters) Redstone rocket — a direct descendent of Nazi Germany’s feared V-2 missile — was not powerful enough to achieve orbit, as Vostok 1 had done. Instead, it would only carry Shepard’s capsule 116 miles (188 km) into space before splashing down 15 minutes later in the Atlantic Ocean, just north of the Bahamas.

But good fortune did not seem to be on Shepard’s side that day. Banks of clouds rolling over Florida’s eastern seaboard threatened to delay the launch, as did a troublesome power inverter, an unexpected computer glitch, and unacceptably high fuel pressure in the Redstone rocket.

After three hours lying on his back, Shepard’s morning coffee and orange juice finally induced the call of nature. “Man, I gotta pee,” Shepard radioed. With only a 15-minute flight planned, the need for a toilet break had gone totally unanticipated. His request was passed up the chain of command, but the thick German accent of senior manager Wernher von Braun was emphatic: “No, ze astronaut shall stay in ze nose-cone!”

Exasperated, Shepard had little choice but to relieve himself in his pressure suit. The spacecraft’s power was turned off, lest he short-circuit the medical wiring or thermometers, and his cotton underwear and Freedom 7’s pure oxygen atmosphere absorbed the result. The first American astronaut, wrote Shepard’s biographer Neal Thompson, was thus spared the humiliation of getting electrocuted by his own urine.

Still, the delays were causing nerves to become frayed. “I’m cooler than you are,” Shepard barked at mission controllers at one stage. “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” Those words have since gained immortality and epitomised the steely nerve of Shepard and his ilk.

Shepard Goes to Space

At 9:34 a.m. EST, with 45 million Americans watching or listening, Shepard heard the launch command and instinctively reached for the mission timer as the Redstone’s engine breathed fire with 78,000 pounds (35,000 kilograms) of thrust. And although the jolt of liftoff was gentler than he had expected, the astronaut’s heart rate nevertheless jumped from 80 to 126 beats per minute.

“Liftoff,” Shepard yelled, “and the clock is started!”

After 80 seconds of flight, this relative calmness abruptly morphed into a violent shudder as the Redstone passed through peak aerodynamic turbulence, causing Shepard’s helmeted head to jackhammer against the headrest. However, these vibrations ceased almost as soon as they began, and two minutes after launch, the rocket’s engine shut down as intended, yielding an ethereal silence in the capsule.

Flying free of the Redstone, Shepard had only a handful of minutes to test Freedom 7’s systems, twirling his ship through pitch, yaw, and roll axes while travelling at 5,000 mph (8,000 km/h) — more than three times faster than any American in history. Weightlessness manifested itself with the comical appearance of floating dust and washers before Shepard’s eyes. But the real spectacle was the view of our home planet itself.

Peering through the capsule’s periscope, Shepard beheld Lake Okeechobee at the northernmost tip of the Everglades, as well as Andros Island, the shoals off Bimini, and the cloud-covered Bahamas. “What a beautiful view,” he declared, to no one in particular.

Beautiful, indeed, but it was a view enjoyed only in monochrome tones, for Shepard had earlier flicked a grey filter over the periscope to avoid getting blinded by sunlight. For a brief instant, he considered flicking off the filter, but when his wrist inadvertently touched Freedom 7’s abort handle, he wisely thought better of it.

A helicopter picks up Alan Shepard from the Atlantic Ocean after the first American spaceflight on May 5, 1961. (Credit: NASA)

Shepard’s return to Earth imposed punishing loads of 11 times the force of terrestrial gravity, briefly leaving him only able to communicate with guttural grunts. Four miles (6.4 km) above the Atlantic, Freedom 7’s drogue parachute deployed, followed by the orange-and-white main canopy.

Following the first American spaceflight, Shepard and Freedom 7 splashed down within sight of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain. And from the deck of the ship itself, hundreds of sailors applauded America’s newest hero — a hero whose singular achievement placed the United States on a path of space exploration that endures to this day.

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