Fifty-five years ago today Alan Shepard became the first American in space. The launch came about three weeks after Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first person to reach that void. Shepard was an Annapolis graduate - Class of 1944 - and one of the original Mercury Seven, those chosen to participate in the nation's first formal manned space flight program.
|Alan Shepard in the 1960's|
On that day, Shepard reclined 80 feet above ground at the top of a Mercury-Redstone rocket. I'm sure he didn't have time or inclination to worry much about the long string of embarrassing rocket failures that had plagued the launch vehicle program. Thorough testing, including the launch of a chimpanzee earlier that year, contributed to the acceptable risk limits that permitted human - greater great ape, so to speak - flight into space. I recall reading about the astronauts' insistence that a window be retained in the Mercury capsules to dispel the concept of "spam in a can" flying that even a monkey could do.
Here's a documentary video of that historic fourteen minute flight.
A decade later Shepard returned to space commanding the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. This time his launch vehicle - Saturn V - was a bit taller at 363 feet. He also got a chance to hit some golf balls very far into the moonscape. After his career as an astronaut he became a successful businessman and advocate for the commemoration and perpetuation of the exploration of space.
Today John Glenn is the last living member - he's 95 - of the Mercury Seven. Their human and technological story which actually begins during the latter years of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - NASA's predecessor - is nothing short of remarkable. If you want to learn more about the early years of the American space program, I highly recommend Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff. The movie adaption (1983) is worth watching as well but don't ignore the book and Wolfe's wonderfully entertaining style.
Photos and Illustrations:
photo by NASA, sourced from www.astrosaur.us