On May 5, 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Shepard’s flight was part of Project Mercury, America’s first space program and the inaugural assignment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although primitive by the standards of future programs, the Mercury missions were critical building blocks toward the goal of large-scale space exploration.
Project Mercury began in 1959 with the tasks of developing the ability to safely put humans into space, and successfully orbiting a manned spacecraft around the Earth. The initial seven astronauts were military pilots, and they played a key role in the design of the project. Thousands of other workers developed the systems and technology that would make Project Mercury possible. It was at the time the most ambitious peacetime project the U.S. Government had ever undertaken, and adjusted for inflation, Project Mercury cost almost three billion dollars.
NASA carried out more than one dozen unmanned flights before Shepard’s, two of which contained chimpanzees. These flights were generally successful, and demonstrated that manned flights were possible. They also, however, outlined the high risk associated with spaceflight. Months before Shepard’s mission a test rocked exploded on the launch pad, and no mission was flawless.
Weeks before Shepard’s flight, the Soviet Union had successfully put Yuri Gagarin into space, marking one of the major milestones in the highly publicized “space race” between the two superpowers. Gagarin’s fight was one of many space “firsts” by the Soviets which had led many to believe that the United States was losing to superior Soviet technology. In reality, American space technology was far more advanced, and much more thoroughly tested, which resulted in the United States taking longer to achieve its goals.
Shepard flew onboard a capsule named “Freedom 7.” He was launched by a Redstone rocket, which was based on German rocket designs from World War II. The flight lasted fifteen minutes. It tested the basic functionality of humans in space, as well as the capsule recovery systems that would be used on later missions.
By all accounts Shepard’s mission was a success, and he became an overnight national hero. Other Mercury projects soon followed. Two months later Gus Grissom completed another sub-orbital flight, and in February, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet. A total of twenty unmanned and six manned flights took place under the banner of the Mercury project. In 1964 NASA replaced Mercury with Project Gemini, which used far more advanced spacecraft and achieved far greater feats.
Shepard remained at NASA after his initial flight, but health problems prevented him from flying until 1971, when he commanded Apollo 14, the third mission that landed on the Moon. Shepard then served as Chief of the Astronaut Office. He retired from NASA in 1974. In his later years he authored a book on the early years of American space exploration, and worked to preserve the history of American space flight. Shepard died from leukemia in 1998. The Freedom 7 capsule is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.