On May 5, 1961, the news media reported that Alan Shepard had become America’s first man in space. He reached an altitude of 115 miles during a 15 minute flight aboard his Freedom 7 Mercury capsule.
Alan Shepard was not the first man in space. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight. His spacecraft, Vostok 1, circled the earth one time.
Shepard’s flight was a major news story around the world. Here is an excerpt from a Miami Herald article:
Alan Shepard’s remarkably uneventful space flight didn’t make the United States the front runner in the race to conquer space Friday, but it did put us ahead of Russia in one key way. It proved men can pilot space ships.
Though Russia’s Yuri Gagarin beat Shepard into space and did it with a full, swift orbit of earth, he didn’t prove what Shepard did. Gagarin’s feat showed the world that man can survive in space, and that he can eat, drink, write, punch telegraph keys and observe earth while orbiting weightless. But Gagain was an observer-passenger in a ship controlled from the ground. Shepard could have been an observer-passenger too, but he rejected the role. Instead, he took charge of his ship.
Page one news from the Alton (Illinois) Evening Telegraph:
When he was selected to be one of America’s first seven Mercury astronauts he was regarded “as a top-knotch Navy aviator, tough, quick-witted, and a leader,” wrote Tom Wolfe in “The Right Stuff,” his classic account of the early space program.
….At two minutes and forty seconds to launch, technicians noticed that fuel pressure was running high, and Shepard was told there might be another delay. It was at that point, writes Wolfe, that Smilin’ Al of the Cape stepped aside for the Icy Commander.
“Why don’t you fix your little problem,” Shepard snapped, “and light this candle.”
Perhaps the fuel pressure wasn’t so high after all, the technicians agreed, and the countdown resumed.
Shepard was sent booming off into the Florida morning sky at 9:34 a.m., and the flight was so short and his responsibilities several, so Shepard had little time to enjoy it.
….Shepard splashed down 40 miles from Bermuda and was hoisted aboard a Marine helicopter that took him to the aircraft carrier Lake Champlain. A day later, he was in Washington where President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal, and a parade in Washington two days after that drew 250,000 people.
— “Alan Shepard was ‘a pretty cool customer‘”
CNN, July 22, 1998
NBC News looked back at the historic flight after Shepard’s safe return to earth.