United States Places Its First Astronaut in Space

Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he traveled for about fifteen minutes in a small space capsule called Freedom 7. Shepard’s suborbital mission, which came just weeks after the Soviet Union accomplished the same task, helped prove that human spaceflight was feasible.

Summary of Event

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, space had become a tool of the Cold War Cold War;space race and a source of malcontent to the American public. The Soviets had repeatedly captured the record for “firsts” in space, including the first human in space, the first space walk, and the first woman in space. The Soviet flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, made Alan Shepard’s flight, only weeks later, a trifle anticlimactic. The United States government’s policy of freely disseminated information on the space program, however, provided the world with film footage of the event and made Shepard’s flight seem more real than the Soviet flight. Shepard’s flight also evoked intense pride in the American public and helped ensure the future funding of the American piloted space program. Freedom 7 (spacecraft)
Space program, U.S.;Freedom 7
Astronauts and cosmonauts
[kw]United States Places Its First Astronaut in Space (May 5, 1961)
[kw]Astronaut in Space, United States Places Its First (May 5, 1961)
[kw]Space, United States Places Its First Astronaut in (May 5, 1961)
Freedom 7 (spacecraft)
Space program, U.S.;Freedom 7
Astronauts and cosmonauts
[g]North America;May 5, 1961: United States Places Its First Astronaut in Space[06920]
[g]United States;May 5, 1961: United States Places Its First Astronaut in Space[06920]
[c]Space and aviation;May 5, 1961: United States Places Its First Astronaut in Space[06920]
[c]Science and technology;May 5, 1961: United States Places Its First Astronaut in Space[06920]
Shepard, Alan
Gilruth, Robert R.
Braun, Wernher von

Shepard was educated at the U.S. Naval Academy, took flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas, and Pensacola, Florida, and received his wings in 1947. He was chosen with the first draft of astronauts, the original seven, on April 9, 1959. At 9:34 a.m. on May 5, 1961, the Mercury-Redstone 3 lifted off from Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy), Florida. Forty-five million people, glued to their television sets, heard Shepard transmit, “Yes, Sir, reading you loud and clear. This is Freedom 7. The fuel is Go . . . 1.2 G . . . cabin at 14 psi . . . oxygen is Go. Freedom 7 is still Go!” Shepard had been enclosed in the capsule since 5:20 that morning, awaiting his historic, precedent-setting flight into history. The flight lasted only about fifteen minutes, and Shepard experienced weightlessness for approximately five minutes. He traveled 495.3 kilometers from the launch site and attained 191 kilometers in altitude, pulling 6 gravitational loads upon launch and 11 gravitational loads upon reentry.

Plans for a piloted satellite program were approved on October 7, 1958, by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator T. Keith Glennan Glennan, T. Keith . Bids were requested on both launch vehicle and spacecraft, and the Space Task Group Space Task Group was organized at Langley Research Center in Virginia, headed by Robert R. Gilruth. The development of Project Mercury Project Mercury
Space program, U.S.;Project Mercury set important precedents. First of all, the technology available at the time would be used as much as possible, cutting down on research. Second, failure of any system would be covered by a backup system. In other words, there were two of each critical system. In the case of guidance, however, pilot ability was utilized should there be a failure. Third, the system of testing made it possible to use the same basic design, adding new devices to succeeding test flights. This caused rapid improvements and advancements in the systems. (The Soviets used a different system, in which they varied new systems constantly, thereby being unable to correct problems systematically.)

Several major developmental projects were identified: testing of a modified Redstone launch vehicle; development and testing of an escape system; capsule environment; heat shield and heat ablation (device whereby the burning off of material dissipates reentry friction heat); and development of the capsule’s retro-rockets, which were needed to angle the spacecraft into the proper reentry angle. The launch vehicles were supplied by military services, the Atlas from the Air Force, and the Redstone from the Army. The Atlas was used for a variety of testing purposes. The Jupiter-C modification of the Redstone was further modified to ensure safety measures were added. For example, alcohol was used as a fuel because of lower toxicity, while the structural changes included the permanent mounting of the lower two stages and the addition of the capsule adaption segment atop the launch vehicle.

North American Aviation North American Aviation designed and constructed the airframe for Little Joe I for the escape system test series. Little Joe I, with a boilerplate (prototype) spacecraft atop, was used to test the escape system, which comprised a tower assembly, powered by solid-fuel rockets. When fired by any one of various sensors or by the astronaut, the entire tower, atop the capsule, would be shot away from the launch vehicle, pulling the astronaut away from a possible launch vehicle failure.

Alan Shepard awaits liftoff aboard Freedom 7.


Many of the biologic requirements of the Mercury astronaut were established by an early balloon ascension program called Operation Manhigh Operation Manhigh . In this program, a series of experimental pilots were lifted to the very edge of space in a gondola. Earlier experiments using mice and other small animals helped establish the amount of life support needed for a human in Manhigh. The 100 percent oxygen, a “scrubber” to rid the air of carbon dioxide, cooling and heating, and waste collection were only a few of the prime considerations.

The original seven astronauts banded together on certain vital issues. One of these issues was the inclusion of a large window, to ease claustrophobia and to be able to catch a unique view of Earth. The spacecraft itself was small; the diameter of the cone at the widest point was 2.1 meters, and the length was 3.4 meters between the nose and the retro-rockets. The unique Mercury spacecraft shape, rather like a bell with a domed bottom, was designed to withstand the intense heat of reentry. Since drag created by the friction of reentry was used to slow the capsule, the larger surface of the bottom of the bell was the hottest surface. It was covered with ablative material to protect the craft from combustion. The rest of the capsule was tiled with beryllium.

During the two years of equipment, launch vehicle, and spacecraft testing, Shepard was going through the most thorough testing procedures ever created for astronauts. After selection from the records of an initial 508 test pilots, 32 volunteers were sent to the Lovelace Medical Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they underwent endurance capability and psychological evaluations. All but one were deemed in top condition and were then sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. From the top eighteen candidates, seven were chosen who seemed to relate well to one another. Each of the seven Mercury astronauts undertook the mastering of one aspect of the launch. Gus Grissom worked on the capsule, and John H. Glenn, Jr., worked on the instrument panel layout. M. Scott Carpenter became expert on communications, and Walter M. Schirra on the pressure suit. Both L. Gordon Cooper and Donald K. Slayton worked closely with the builders of the booster. Shepard undertook probably the most complex subject: the complicated tracking systems.

Shepard, and each of the Mercury space travelers, named his own craft. “Freedom” is self-explanatory; however, the “7” started out because his launch vehicle was the seventh produced, and the spacecraft was also number seven. Also, “7” came to stand for the spirit and incredible courage of the original seven astronauts, and each, in turn, named his craft with a “7” following the chosen name. Shepard’s remarkable attitude and raw courage set the standards for American astronauts.


Following the launch of the first world coverage communications satellite, President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;space program expressed two major concerns in relation to the future of space. He was worried that there would be problems regarding who controlled worldwide communications, and he believed that only unpiloted spaceflight should be explored. In fact, there was considerable debate about the direction of the space program. One faction wished to continue development of space via satellites and defense weaponry, and the other wished to launch humans into space. It was against a backdrop of great controversy, and under a new presidency (with John F. Kennedy) that Project Mercury began. It was not until October of 1958 that NASA gave its consent to the project, in spite of the fact that Wernher von Braun had made recommendations years before and had projected a possible launch date of April, 1959. The interagency jealousies of the time prevented the launch that could have put the first human in space before the Soviets could develop the necessary technology.

It was of prime importance that Project Mercury succeed, therefore, to illustrate the feasibility of humans in space. Once Shepard returned to a hero’s welcome and presidential honor, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey Humphrey, Hubert H.
[p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;international relations quickly proposed on May 6, 1961, an International Space Year to foster international space cooperation and to secure peace in space. In the proposition, he suggested that the United Nations charter be extended to space. Humphrey hoped for world cooperation in weather prediction, even weather control, in addition to global communications.

Project Mercury had already done much to dampen military interservice jealousies, as facilities were used as needed, not taking into account whether the Air Force, Navy, or Army ran the facility. The astronauts themselves did much to unite the country and to place the space program in the foremost of the American scene. They placed little importance on which branch of the military they represented, emphasizing only their nationality. They worked extremely well together, in spite of the fact that they were all very aggressive, success-oriented people. Their spirit, enthusiasm, and teamwork gave NASA the clean, positive image that pulled together the governmental factions, allowing space research and development to progress during the following years.

Probably the most far-reaching impact of Shepard’s flight is the change in the way Earth came to be viewed. Once the public saw Earth from space, realization began to set in that all nations should pull together as citizens of the world. Although the Soviet-American race into space continued for a number of years, consideration of joint projects began to surface. Now, commercial launch vehicles of various nations offer launching of spacecraft to many nations. The future of space travel may well involve joint planetary expeditions, utilizing the specialities of various nations. The flight of Freedom 7 led to a new generation of space exploration and travel. Freedom 7 (spacecraft)
Space program, U.S.;Freedom 7
Astronauts and cosmonauts

Further Reading

  • Catchpole, John. Project Mercury: NASA’s First Manned Space Programme. London: Springer-Verlag London, 2001. Provides a history of the Mercury program, of which Shepard’s mission was just the beginning. Discusses the program’s infrastructure, its launch vehicles, and more.
  • Cipriano, Anthony J. America’s Journeys into Space: The Astronauts of the United States. New York: Wanderer Books, 1979. Beautifully illustrated biographical data book with approximately two pages devoted to each astronaut. Missions are described briefly, making a very readable, informative book. Basic biographical details are in chart form, and spaceflight details are in narrative form.
  • Cox, Donald W. The Space Race: From Sputnik to Apollo, and Beyond. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1962. A detailed history of space programs, their development, and their significance. Discusses behind-the-scenes political, economic, and historical causes and consequences. Also traces the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, and attempts to lay a rationale for the future of space, as seen from the early 1960’s.
  • Engle, Eloise, and Arnold S. Lott. Man in Flight: Biomedical Achievements in Aerospace. Annapolis, Md.: Leeward, 1979. Written in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Aerospace Medical Association. Gives an excellent history of the interaction of various biomedical organizations and the story of the oftentimes unseen medical personnel who helped make spaceflight possible.
  • Ezell, Linda Neuman. Programs and Projects 1958-1968. Vol. 2 in NASA Historical Data Book. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988. An invaluable source of raw data on the space program. Charts give chronological history, launch vehicle and spacecraft data, and compact, informative narrative. A little difficult to follow unless the reader has some background in technical terms.
  • Godwin, Robert, ed. Freedom 7: The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ont.: Apogee Books, 2001. A collection of rare official documentation of the voyage of Freedom 7.
  • Needell, Allan A. The First Twenty-five Years in Space. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983. Compiled by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences; based on a 1982 symposium. These readings on the first twenty-five years of space deal with the rationale behind the entry of the United States into space exploration, the events, and its meaning.
  • Roland, Alex. A Spacefaring People: Perspectives on Early Spaceflight. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1985. Essays on early spaceflight, dealing with such topics as domestic and international consequences of spaceflight and the reasons for spaceflight, including the history behind the early spaceflight programs. It also includes the management developmental history of early space programs.
  • Thompson, Neal. Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard—America’s First Spaceman. New York: Crown, 2004. A biographical history of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. The author had exclusive access to private papers and conducted interviews with Shepard’s family and closest friends, including several other astronauts.
  • Time-Life Books Editors. Life in Space. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1983. This large book contains beautiful photography. The chapters deal with each American space program, beginning with Mercury and ending with the sixth flight of the space shuttle. Includes a chapter on unpiloted deep-space exploration. Narrative was written by consultants from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

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