NASA astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961 aboard his Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7.Credit: NASA.
Over the next 15 years, Shepard served in the Navy in various capacities. He received a civilian pilot's license while in naval flight training, and spent several tours on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. He attended the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School in 1950, and then went on to participate in a number of developmental tests for various crafts, as well as trials of the first angled carrier deck. He then became an instructor in the Test Pilot School. He logged more than 8, 000 hours of flight time over the course of his career. [Photos: Freedom 7, America's 1st Human Spaceflight]
Shepard attended the Naval War College in Rhode Island. Following his 1957 graduation, he was assigned as an aircraft readiness officer on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.
Upon his return home at the close of World War II, Shepard married Louise Brewer, whom he had met while attending the Naval Academy. The couple had two daughters.
The right stuff
In 1959, 110 test pilots were invited to volunteer for the space flight program headed by the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although Shepard was on the list, a snafu kept him from receiving his invitation. Regardless, he was selected as one of the first seven astronauts for the organization. Known as the Mercury 7, the group included John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Donald "Deke" Slayton, Malcolm "Scott" Carpenter, Walter "Wally" Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. From this prestigious group of highly trained fliers, Shepard was selected to man the first space flight, with Glenn acting as his backup.
Astronaut Alan B. Shepard is rescued by a U.S. Marine helicopter at the end of his sub-orbital Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) flight May 5, 1961.Credit: NASA
The stakes were raised in the space race on April 15, 1961, when the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and he became the first person to orbit the Earth. Gagarin beat the Americans by less than a month. Shepard's launch was initially scheduled for May 2, but was rescheduled twice because of weather conditions. On May 5, Freedom 7 lifted off, carrying Shepard to an altitude of 116 miles for a 15-minute flight. Because of the placement of the porthole windows, the first American in space was unable to catch a glimpse of the stars, and he was strapped in too tight to experience weightlessness. Also, a filter left on the periscope window rendered the Earth below in black and white.
Although the Soviets had reached the historic milestone first, Shepard's suborbital flight made a significant worldwide impact because its launch, travel and splashdown were watched on live television by millions of people. By contrast, the details of Gagarin's landing were kept confidential for more than a decade. For his daring achievement, President John F. Kennedy awarded Shepard the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. [Infographic: America's First Spaceship: Project Mercury]
Shepard worked on the ground for subsequent flights in the Mercury program and was slated to pilot the Mercury 10 mission. However, after successfully putting an astronaut in orbit for a full day with Mercury 9, NASA decided to close the first manned space program and move on with Gemini, the next step on the journey toward the moon.
NASA selected Shepard to be part of the first manned Gemini mission. However, he woke one morning dizzy and nauseated, and found himself falling constantly. He was subsequently diagnosed with Meniere's syndrome. Fluid in his inner ear had built up, increasing the sensitivity of the semicircular canals and motion detectors. Shepard was grounded in 1963, forbidden from solo flights in jet planes — or traveling in space.