Fifty-three years ago today, on May 5, 1961, the first American to go into space, astronaut Alan Shepard, blasted off in his space capsule which was called “Freedom 7.” This was the first manned flight of NASA’s Mercury program and a major milestone in the history of U.S. space exploration. As most people know, Shepard was not the first human being to fly in space. As hard as NASA tried to be first, the Soviets beat them to the punch, launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit only a few weeks before.
The flight of Freedom 7 was remarkably short–a little more than 15 minutes. The Mercury program, and indeed all of NASA’s early space efforts, were planned with the thinking of incremental progress: each mission would push only a little farther than the mission before. Consequently, although it had tremendous political and reputational significance, Shepard’s flight was not very different from the previous Mercury test flights, which carried mechanical “astronaut simulators” into space, and most famously the chimpanzee known as Ham, who flew a “mission” very similar to Shepard’s flight on January 31, 1961. The big difference with Freedom 7, of course, was that there was a human being in the capsule for the first time, and the flight of a spacecraft was controlled from human hands in space as opposed to mechanical means on the ground.
Shepard’s flight was textbook perfect. Nothing substantial went wrong, at least once he was in space; there was a famous incident reported by Tom Wolfe in his book The Right Stuff (and depicted in the film version) where Shepard had to pee badly while he sat in the capsule on the launch pad but the mission controllers didn’t want to delay their schedule by letting him get out and go to the bathroom. According to Wolfe, Shepard peed in his spacesuit with the reluctant acquiescence of the controllers. Nevertheless, all went fine with the flight itself and the splashdown recovery was particularly efficient. After spending 15 minutes in space, Alan Shepard returned to earth to be personally decorated by President Kennedy and become the main attraction in a ticker-tape parade through the streets of Broadway. Not bad for a quarter of an hour’s work!
At 47, Alan Shepard was the oldest man to walk on the Moon. He was the fifth person to set foot there after Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad and Bean.
Although it was shorter than an episode of Leave it to Beaver, the flight of Freedom 7 was hugely important politically and scientifically. The success of the mission gave John F. Kennedy the political cover he needed to ask Congress, NASA and the American people to commit to the lofty goal of a manned moon landing by the end of the 1960s. He did this in a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, only 20 days after Shepard was back on the ground. Kennedy’s warning–“none [no other goal] will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish”–was prophetic. By the end of the decade the United States spent $24 billion to get to the Moon and explore it, the largest commitment of government money ever directed to a single public works project in peacetime. The scientific and technological advancement that resulted from this achievement is considerable.
As for Shepard himself, he went on to further glory after Freedom 7 splashed down. Rising through the ranks of NASA astronauts, he was grounded in 1964 due to a disease of his inner ear. A cure was found for that condition in 1969 and suddenly he was back on top. In February 1971, almost a decade after Freedom 7, Shepard stepped out onto the surface of the Moon as commander of Apollo 14. His short 15-minute flight was the beginning of an epic odyssey that took him to the Moon and back. He died of leukemia in 1998.
The Freedom 7 capsule that Shepard rode into space is currently on display at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the institution from which Shepard graduated in 1944.