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Today We Celebrate Alan Shepard

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to travel to space. His historic mission in the Freedom 7 spacecraft came a little over three weeks after the Soviet Union successfully made Yuri Gagarin the first person in space. While Gagarin’s spaceflight lasted 108 minutes and included a single orbit around Earth, Shepard’s lasted only 15 minutes and was suborbital.

NASA introduced the Project Mercury astronauts to the world on April 9, 1959, only six months after the agency was established. Known as the Mercury Seven or Original Seven, they are; Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.

Alan B. Shepard Jr earned his bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy in 1944 and graduated from the Naval Test Pilot School in 1951 and the Naval War College in 1957. Shepard began his naval career deployed in the Pacific during World War II and he later entered flight training at Corpus Christi and Pensacola, earning his wings in 1947. As a pilot, Shepard logged more than 8,000 flying hours, 3,700 of which were in jet aircraft.

Shepard joined the astronaut program in 1959 and began training for his first spaceflight. According to NASA, the Mercury Seven’s training “was intended to provide the new astronauts with an education in astronautics and space biology, conditioning for space flight, training in the operation of the new Mercury vehicle, familiarization with ground operations, and aviation flight training.”

After two years of training, the day was finally here: On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard climbed into his Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7 and became the first American and second person in space on a 15-minute suborbital spaceflight.

To launch Shepard and his spacecraft into space, NASA turned to existing military ballistic missiles, modifying a U.S. Army Redstone rocket. The Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle was also used to launch Gus Grissom when he became the second American in space a few months later.

Shepard’s mission ended 15 minutes after launch with splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the mission, ground control had nearly continuous contact with Shepard through a worldwide network of ground stations, ships, and aircraft. NASA designed the Mercury capsule for a water landing, with a parachute that deployed at 24,500 feet to begin slowing the spacecraft. After landing in the ocean, Shepard exited the spacecraft and was hoisted into a Navy helicopter and taken to the nearby aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain.

Alan Shepard’s spaceflight was very highly publicized, and millions of people watched the launch live, turning him into a national hero. In the days after his successful spaceflight, Shepard received ticker-tape parades in DC, New York, and Los Angeles, and received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy. In 1963, Shepard became the Chief of the Astronaut Office after being grounded from future spaceflight due to a diagnosis of Ménière's disease, an inner-ear disorder that can cause dizziness and nausea. However, in 1969 Shepard underwent an operation to relieve the symptoms of Ménière's and was cleared to fly again. He returned to space as commander of the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, becoming the fifth person to walk on the Moon.