First American In Space1961
Alan Shepard and Freedom 7When Captain Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., swung his homemade golf club and drove a golf ball into the bleak lunar landscape during the Apollo 14 moon landing on February 5, 1971, he established a unique precedent: he was the first American golfer on the moon. A decade earlier, Shepard had achieved an even more memorable first: he became the first American to fly into space. Shepard was, in fact, one of the original seven men selected to become America's first astronauts as part of Project Mercury in 1959. The requirements for this man-in-space project were stringent: each man must have an advanced scientific education and considerable pilot experience. He must be under 40 years old, weigh less than 180 lbs. (80 kg.), and be no more than 5'11" tall. As one official commented at the time, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was searching for a bunch of "ordinary supermen." A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a World War II veteran, Shepard was a career naval commander from New Hampshire at the time of his appointment by NASA. Witty and brilliant, he shared endless hours of work with his six comrades, awaiting the chance to test the new frontier which President John F. Kennedy had vowed America would someday conquer. Shepard also shared the disappointment felt by all Americans when the Russians beat the U.S. into space on April 12, 1961, the day Major Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight aboard Vostok I. Although this was unquestionably a great achievement for mankind, it represented a serious blow to America's world prestige. Finally, after several postponements and interrupted countdowns, America's moment arrived. Alan Shepard boarded a Mercury capsule atop a giant Redstone missile at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and blasted off for a 15-minute ride into space and fame. It was exactly 10:34 a.m. (EDT.) on May 5, 1961. He traveled at 5,180 m.p.h., reaching a height of 116½ miles (187 km.), and covered more than 300 miles (483 km.) downrange. As he returned to Earth, Shepard faced his greatest test: would his 2,855-lb. (1,300 kg.) spacecraft, named "Freedom 7," withstand the tremendous heat as it entered Earth's atmosphere, or would it overheat to the point where he could be literally cooked inside? Freedom 7's heat shield held, and Alan Shepard's first manned flight into space was a success. Ten years later, he landed on the moon as a member of the Apollo project.
Illustration: Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., being sealed in Mercury spacecraft
© 1979, Panarizon Publishing Corp, USA
Printed in Italy