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Alan Shepard Becomes the First American in Space

on May 5, 1961

launch vehicle
an 83-foot-tall Mercury-Redstone rocket
capsule name
Freedom 7

The Mission

Shepard spent most of May 4th in flight preparation with backup astronaut Marine Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. Before retiring at 10 P.M., Shepard called his wife, Louise, who was staying at the couple's Virginia Beach, Virginia, home with their younger daughter, Juliana, and their niece, Alice Williams. He also called his older daughter, Laura, at her boarding school in St. Louis, Missouri, and his parents at their home in New Hampshire.

Shepard and Glenn were awakened at 1:05 A.M. from the astronaut quarters on the mezzzanine of Cape Canaveral's Hangar S. After a shower and shave, Shepard enjoyed a breakfast of filet mignon and bacon, two poached eggs, orange juice, coffee, and dry toast. He then underwent a brief physical, after which a variety of biomedical sensors were attached to his body.

Shepard gets his temperature taken while reflecting on what is in store for him.
Shepard has his temperature taken

Shepard getting "wired" with biomedical sensors.
Shepard being fitted with sensors

Right: First Lieutenant Dolores O'Hara, the nurse who attended Shepard during his pre-flight physical.
Dolores O'Hara

At. 3 A.M., suit technician Joe Schmitt helped Shepard into his 20-pound pressure suit.

Suit technician Schmitt tightens straps and tests for leaks as Shepard lies on a couch similar to the one he will ride in the capsule.
Shepard being suited up

Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (center) listens while Schmitt talks to Shepard by telephone.
Shepard talks to Schmitt via telephone

Just before 4 A.M., Shepard walked out of the hangar, carrying his portable air conditioner, and climbed into Transfer Van One, the "rolling clinic" that took him to Launch Pad 5, at which he arrived at 5:14 A.M..

Upon reaching the launch pad, Shepard strides toward the Mercury Redstone that will carry him into space.
Shepard walks toward his ride

Shepard slid, feet first, into his space capsule at 5:20 A.M. and the hatch was bolted shut at 6:10. The last man to see Shepard before the hatch was closed was Guenter Wendt, pad leader for the McDonnell Corporation, builder of Freedom 7.

Shepard was launched from Cape Canaveral's Pad 5. The voice in his earphones during the countdown and launch belonged to fellow astronaut Donald "Deke" Slayton. In addition to a host of technicians, his flight was closely monitored from within the Mercury Control Center by Glenn, Grissom, and Mercury Life Systems Director Dr. Stanley C. White.

Technicians inside the blockhouse of Launch Pad 5 monitor the progress of the booster, spacecraft, and astronaut during the launch.
monitoring Shepard's flight

The rocket's engine cut out 2 minutes and 22 seconds after launch. Top speed had been reached (5,180 miles per hour), and an altitude of 243,000 feet (approximately 46 miles) had been achieved.

Shepard took manual control of the capsule at T plus 3 minutes and 10 seconds (9:37:10).

Apogee (116.5 miles) was reached, and re-entry approach began. Freedom 7 re-entered the atmosphere at 9:41:48. During the 90 seconds of re-entry, the capsule's speed slowed from 5,180 mph to 300 mph. Temperature on the outside of the heat shield rose to 100 F and cabin temperature rose to 111 F (from 93 F at liftoff), but the temperature inside Shepard's suit only rose to 78 F (from 71 F at launch).

A small stabilizing drogue parachute was deployed at 21,000 feet, a ventilation valve opened at about 15,000 feet, and the main chute was deployed at 10,000 feet. The capsule splashed down at 9:49 EST, 302 miles from Cape Canaveral, 7 miles from the planned impact point.

Sailors point and cheer after spotting Shepard's main chute.
watching Shepard's return

Freedom 7 and Shepard were recovered by Marine Helicopter 44, piloted by Lieutenant Wayne Kooms. Ten minutes after splashdown, both were safely aboard the Lake Champlain.

Shepard is hauled into Helicopter 44.
recovery of Shepard

After a physical test aboard the Lake Champlain, Shepard was flown to Grand Bahama Island, where a small, white aluminum hospital had been specially built for Project Mercury. Shepard spent the next 72 hours debriefing, resting, and being subjected to a detailed series of physical tests.

Shepard waves farewell to the crew of the Lake Champlain before leaving for Grand Bahamas.
Shepard leaves from the Bahamas

Louise Shepard expresses great joy as she greets friends at her home in Virginia.
Louise Shepard

Unless otherwise noted, all pictures on this page are credited to NASA.


The World Book Year Book 1962 Chicao, Illinois: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, 1962

See Also

Alan Shepard
John H. Glenn, Jr.
Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom

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The Robinson Library >> Astronautics >> History

This page was last updated on 09/18/2018.