Alan Shepard Becomes First American in Space

U.S. #4527 was issued for the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s flight.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space when he successfully took a sub-orbital flight aboard Freedom 7.

A year after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space, the United States created Project Mercury – its first manned space program – in 1958. Project Mercury had three specific objectives: One, to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth. Two, to investigate man’s ability to function in space. And three, to recover both man and spacecraft safely.

A major step toward the first of these goals came in 1961 with the launch of the Freedom 7 spacecraft in the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission. The Freedom 7 was selected for the first U.S. manned suborbital flight in October 1960, but additional preparation changed the launch date to May 1961. In January, three astronauts were announced as potential pilots for the mission – Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn. It was not until the May 2nd launch was canceled due to weather that America discovered it was Shepard who would pilot the spacecraft.

On the morning of May 5, 1961, an estimated 45 million Americans eagerly waited in front of their television sets for the Freedom 7 liftoff, which occurred at 9:34 a.m. Within minutes, the craft left Earth’s atmosphere, making Alan Shepard the first American to reach space.

U.S. #1193 pictures Friendship 7, which John Glenn piloted in the first successful orbit of Earth during Project Mercury.

The Freedom 7 spent 15 minutes, 28 seconds in flight, reaching an altitude of 116.5 miles. Shepard’s mission in that short time was to demonstrate control of a vehicle during weightlessness and high G stresses. Shepard traveled 302 miles at a speed of 5,134 miles per hour. Both spacecraft and astronaut were recovered in excellent condition. Most significant were the differences between the earlier flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Shepard.

Gagarin had merely been a passenger, and had parachuted from his spacecraft. Shepard controlled Freedom 7, and maneuvered it to a near-perfect landing. America reclaimed its technological superiority. Although the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission was brief by today’s standards, its accomplishments were great. By proving that humans could perform certain necessary tasks in space, this historic flight paved the way for every U.S. space flight that has followed since.

Almost instantly, astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., became a national hero. He even got a telephone call from President Kennedy, just minutes after boarding the aircraft carrier “Lake Champlain.” The Mercury Project was a smashing success. In fact, just three weeks after Alan Shepard’s historic sub-orbital flight, President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. Project Mercury provided the U.S. with the necessary experience to make this vision a reality.

Item #M7312 – This sheet commemorating the Moon landing includes a photo of Shepard honoring his earlier achievement.

All of the Project Mercury goals were accomplished during six manned flights, between 1961 and 1963. After Shepard’s success, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. And on the last manned Mercury flight, Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr., conducted the first U.S.-manned space mission to last more than 24 hours.

The success of this mission was an important milestone in American space exploration. It led to one of the world’s greatest space achievements – landing a man on the moon, which occurred just eight years later.

Click here to see a video chronicling Shepard’s historic flight.

Click the images to add this history to your collection.

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    1. If this is the Alan B Shepard High School in Illinois, I know it well. I went to Richards and was a little jealous that your school was named for a Great man when mine was just some former school administrator. I was on the swim team and Shepard had one of the best pools that I swam in.

  1. Remembered both May 2 and 5th. My grade school class went to the gym and watched it on TV. May 2nd was weather related. Some clouds in the sky or something. Watched the whole thing on May 5th including the landing and picking up Shepard with a helicopter. They scrubbed down the Freedom 7 because they thought it might bring back space germs. Watched Grissom and Glenn later. This would not happen now because it would not raise test scores.

    1. I agree with you, Rich. There’s too much testing and not enough learning nowadays. I was in the sixth grade when we watched the event in the school library, truly a great achievement in America’s space exploration!

  2. I recalled the events of today 55 years ago before seeing this latest This Day in History posted because we listened to the launch on the intercom in our classroom in high school (we were not as lucky as Rich Davis who witnessed it on TV), and as a space cover collector, I have launch, tracking, and recovery ship covers in my collection posted May 5, 1961.

  3. Ricky: This country is as great as ever. The media just is involved in other propaganda agendas.
    our space program and satellite systems are beyond anything we imagined in 61. this was 9 days before my 18th birthday. The education in science push was on.

    What’s not great is people pushing religion into government and making discovery a minor priority.

  4. Great man . I have included his brief write up in my Research paper titled: Men who left their stamp on history 100 Great Astronauts . Thank you Mystic Stamp for reminding us of this great day in space exploration.

  5. ‘… and a giant leap for mankind …’ Ensign/Commander Neil Armstrong once said (1969). I guess it still made sense, then, to see oneself (and achievements) as part of mankind’s general evolution. In that spirit I note the brief mention of Russia’s contribution to space exploration, also, as Colonel Yury Gagarin believed, in the name of universal development and civilisation.

    In cosmological terms, it makes no sense to date the exploits of 1961 as separate, but more perhaps as two sides of the same historical coin. Of course as the article points out, differences become more apparent looking at technical details, and this is not surprising given the sheer vertiginous pace of progress in this industry in the US; thanks in no small part to the ‘electrifying’ advance in computerised science/technology, and applications for space exploration — it has been a fashion for some time now to believe that the ‘first man on the moon’ mission could have been entirely controlled from one’s office, using a current MacPro (Intel generation) …

    It is perhaps worth noting, in this day and age, that we (human kind) can still achieve much in space exploration (e.g., international space station, etc) through cooperative endeavour between the pioneering ‘space’ nations; and this can only make the rest of the world feel part it. A small step for Sheppard/Gagarin/Armstrong, and a significant cosmological ‘hyperjump’ in our collective march to the stars. GdR

  6. I remember this incident as if it happend yesterday since I was one of the frogman who dropped into the ocean to open the hatch on the recovery.What a great feeling to part of a historical event.

    1. That has to be the best first hand experience I’ve read about on this blog and what a memory that must be. Too much credit is given to Glenn for his single orbital flight since Shepard went first after many failed launch attempts. I’m sure Grissom and Glenn wouldn’t have hesitated to go. It took a lot of guts to be #1. Shepard also went on to command Apollo 14 and was one of 12 men to walk on the moon. Thanks for sharing your story and thank you for your service.

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