With 45 million people in the United States watching on
, Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he launched
aboard the
Freedom 7 Mercury capsule


On May 5, 1961,
a Redstone rocket lofted the U.S. astronaut and Freedom 7 187 kilometers above the Earth’s surface
. After a 15.5
-minute flight – about 5 minutes of which Shepard spent weightless – the Mercury capsule splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean, just 483 kilometers from its
launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla


Project Mercury mobilized quickly –
the manned capsule was contracted to be built in January 1959 – but not quickly enough to beat the Soviet manned program. Just 23 days prior to Shepard’s spaceflight, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.


Shepard’s flight was the second step toward recovering the nation’s technological prestige –
the first was
the successful launch of the U.S. Explorer 1 satellite in response to the Soviet Sputnik, said Howard McCurdy, chair of American University School of Public Affairs here


It was not as
glamorous for Shepard and his fellow astronauts as it often is portrayed, the space historian said in an April 26 phone interview. “I think they were presented much like rock stars,” McCurdy said, adding that a
t the same time they “were human test subjects.

Still, Shepard was anxious to fly into space.According to NASA’sWeb site, a month before the launch, Shepard pressedtechnicianswho were discussing how to fix a mechanical malfunction that delayed the launch countdown:“Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

Like the other Mercury Seven astronauts,
Shepard, a 37-year-old Navy
had been a military test pilot.


“When they were test pilots they were testing machines and when they were astronauts they were testing themselves,” McCurdy said.


However, there were noteworthy differences between
John Glenn’s February 1962 orbital spaceflight and
Shepard’s suborbital ride
, McCurdy said. Glenn had to take control of the otherwise computer-controlled Mercury when one of the attitude control jets malfunctioned and performed an unorthodox landing when the heat shield did not appear to be fastened properly. With the first manned Mercury flight, Shepard’s purpose was to test
the stresses of microgravity on the human body, he said.


Previous Mercury flights with primates and
Gagarin’s successful launch and recovery proved that
spaceflight was not necessarily fatal.
NASA still questioned

if going into space might cause incapacitating disorientation, McCurdy said.


Although Shepard
switched to manual control from time to time to make attitude adjustments, he was more a passenger than a pilot, McCurdy said.

“The rocket had worked perfectly, all I had to do was survive the re-entry forces,” Shepard said in a Feb. 1, 1991, interview, posted on the Academy of Achievement Web site. In fact, the only in-flight malfunction was the failure of a sensor to signal that the retro-rocket pack had been jettisoned,
the NASA History Web site said.


After the
flight Shepard checked out fine, as did his Mercury capsule. Engineers examining the recovered capsule said it was in good enough condition that the disposable spacecraft could be launched again,
the NASA History Web site said.

Shepard’s flight and successful
return home
were televised live
. Watching with special interest was U.S. President John F. Kennedy,
McCurdy said.


Shepard’s successful launch and recovery gave Kennedy the confidence to announce his plans for a manned Moon landing three weeks later, McCurdy said.


Nearly a decade later, Shepard had the opportunity to be much more than just a test subject when he served
commander of the
Apollo 14 mission in early 1971


But Shepard almost did not get the chance to return to space. In late 1963,
NASA pulled him
from the astronaut rotation
when a problem with his
inner ear
surfaced, which
sometimes made him disorientated, dizzy and nauseous, the NASA History Web site said.


Shepard underwent a risky, yet
successful, surgery to correct the problem in early 1969, the Web site said.


died of leukemia July 22, 1998, in Monterey, Calif., at the age of 74

Comments: cparks@space.com





May 5

2005: The Indian Space Research Organisation launches its CartoSat-1 Earth-mapping satellite on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle from Satish Dhawan Space Center,
Sriharikota Island.


May 7


1945: The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) opens its Wallops Flight Research Facility in
Wallops Island, Va. The research facility was headed by NACA’s Langley Research Center of Hampton, Va.


2002: DirecTV’s direct-to-home TV broadcast satellite, DirecTV 5, launches on a Russian Proton rocket from Baikon
ur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.


May 8

1998: A Proton rocket successfully lofts EchoStar Communications Corp.’s EchoStar 4 direct-to-home TV broadcast satellite from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It was the first Proton launch since the rocket placed the AsiaSat 3 satellite into an incorrect orbit in December 1997.


2001: Sea Launch Co. lofts XM Satellite Radio’s delayed XM-1 radio broadcast satellite on a Zenit 3SL rocket from the company’s Odyssey floating platform on the equator in the Pacific Ocean.


2003: The Indian Space Research Organisation makes the second launch of its Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle when it lofts India’s GSat-2 experimental communications satellite from Satish Dhawan Space Center in
Sriharikota Island.


May 9


1965: The Soviet Union’s Luna 5 launches on a modified SS-6 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome to study soft lunar landings. During descent,
the retro-rocket system failed causing the lander to crash into the Moon.


1994: The last Scout rocket launches the U.S. Defense Department’s Miniature Sensor Technology Integration-2 satellite, designed for theater ballistic missile tracking, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.


2003: Japan’s Institute for Space and Astronautical Science launches the Hayabusa, also known as Muses-C, to collect and
return a sample from asteroid Itokawa. The space probe was launched on a Mu-5 rocket from Kagoshima Space Center.


May 11


1949: U.S. President Harry S. Truman signs
a bill
to establish
the Atlantic Missile Range at Cape Canaveral, Fla.