The Huntsville Times newspaper headline. Friday May 5, 1961. Credit: Space.com
At 9:37 AM on May 5, 1961, 37-year-old Alan Shepard of the US Navy was launched into space from Kennedy Space Center. Shepard was piloting a Freedom 7 spacecraft aboard a Mercury 3 capsule attached to a Redstone rocket, which was a converted Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Three weeks prior, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space. Shepard was attempting to become the first American in space.
Freedom 7 spacecraft during launch sequence. May 5, 1961. Credit: Space.com
The Freedom 7 spacecraft followed a suborbital trajectory that did not include an Earth orbit and lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds, before a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. During the flight, Shepard maintained constant communication with ground control. He spent approximately 5 minutes in zero gravity and as he re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, he was subjected to 11 times the force of gravity traveling at 5,100 mph but managed to report that he was “OK”. His first words after splashing down and being picked up by helicopter were: “Boy, what a ride!”
Alan Shepard & Mercury 3 capsule are picked up by helicopter. May 5, 1961. Credit: Space.com
Although the Soviet Union had sent a man into space first, Alan Shepard's flight made a significant worldwide impact because its launch, travel and splashdown were watched on live television by millions of people. Three weeks after the capsule returned, President John F. Kennedy announced to the nation the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth before the end of the decade, a goal that was achieved in July 1969. Alan Shepard would go on to be commander of the Apollo 14 Moon mission and would become the 5th person walk on the Moon.