This article was originally published on May 5, 2021.

Early on May 5, 1961, the United States came to a standstill. A Philadelphia judge halted all court proceedings, crowds in Times Square sang and danced, and traffic in California slowed to a crawl. Taverns even offered free champagne to revelers. In the White House, President John F. Kennedy stood dumbfounded, his hands deep in his pockets and his eyes fixed on an incredible television picture. Because on this late spring morning 60 years ago, America safely sent its first man into space, causing an anxious nation to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Who was the first American astronaut in space?

That man was 37-year-old Alan Shepard, a rugged New Englander and scion of a wealthy and fiercely loyal military family. His boundless energy had pushed him two grades ahead in school, while his adventurous spirit, sharp wit, and determination to be the best led the US Navy to choose Shepard to test their most advanced aircraft.

But more than once, Shepherd’s fearless antics nearly landed him in a court-martial. For example, he once looped his plane over and under the half-built Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland, a military parade and buzzing sunny beaches in Ocean City.

Shepard is chosen

Selected in 1959 as one of NASA’s original Mercury Seven astronauts, Shepherd’s thirst for pushing boundaries would eventually lead him to the moon. Still, being chosen as America’s first space traveler was undoubtedly his proudest achievement. “Not for the fame or recognition,” Shepherd once said, “but because America’s best test drivers went through this selection process, down to seven guys, and of those seven, I was the one who had to go.”

NASA’s first astronaut crew, Mercury Seven, pose for a portrait. Front row, left to right: Walter M. Shira, Jr., Donald C. “Dike” Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr. and M. Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepherd, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. (Image credit: NASA)

After learning of his important role in early 1961, Shepard hugged his wife, Louise Shepard, and told her she had hugged the world’s first astronaut. But her answer wasn’t exactly what she expected. “Who let a Russian in here?” she pointed out playfully. She knew the Soviets had already fired the first artificial satelliteSputnik, put dogs into orbitand fly probes to the moon. Sending a man into space was certainly next on their list.

Louise Shepard’s casual remark came back to bite on April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight by orbiting Vostok 1 around the planet, returning to instant worldwide fame. The United States had missed another chance to be first by remaining firmly behind the communist empire.

“We grabbed them by the scruff of the neck,” growled Shepard, “and gave them away.”

Alan Shepard prepares for space

In the pre-dawn darkness of May 5, when Alan Shepherd climbed aboard the Freedom 7 capsule at Cape Canaveral’s Pad 5, he knew it would take a while to catch the Russians. Its 83-foot-tall (25-meter) Redstone rocket—a direct successor to Nazi Germany’s fearsome V-2 rocket—wasn’t powerful enough to reach orbit as Vostok 1 did. Instead, it would carry Shepherd’s capsule only 116 miles (188 km) into space before crashing 15 minutes later into the Atlantic Ocean, just north of the Bahamas.

But luck didn’t seem to be on Shepard’s side that day. Clusters of clouds rolling in over Florida’s east coast threatened to delay the launch, as did a faulty power inverter, an unexpected computer problem and unacceptably high fuel pressure in the Redstone rocket.

After three hours of lying on my back, Shepard’s morning coffee and orange juice finally made nature call. “Man, I gotta pee,” Shepard said over the radio. With only a 15-minute flight scheduled, the need for a toilet break was completely unexpected. His request was relayed up the chain of command, but senior manager Werner von Braun’s thick German accent was emphatic: “No, the astronaut will stay in his nose!”

Annoyed, Shepard had no choice but to relieve himself in his spacesuit. The spacecraft’s power was turned off so as not to short out the medical wiring or thermometers, and his cotton underwear and Freedom 7’s pure oxygen atmosphere took the brunt. America’s first astronaut, writes Shepard’s biographer Neil Thompson, was thus spared the humiliation of being electrocuted by his own urine.

Still, the delays were unnerving. “I’m cooler than you,” Shepard barked at the mission controllers at one stage. “Why don’t you solve your little problem and light that candle?” Those words have since acquired immortality and epitomized the steely nerve of Shepard and his ilk.

Alan Shepard: The First American in Space

At 9:34 a.m. EST, with 45 million Americans watching or listening, Shepard heard the launch command and instinctively reached for the mission timer as Redstone’s engine breathed fire with 78,000 pounds (35,000 kilograms) of thrust. And although the liftoff shock was weaker than he expected, the astronaut’s heart rate still jumped from 80 to 126 beats per minute.

“Take off,” Shepard shouted, “and the watch is off!”

After 80 seconds of flight, this relative calm suddenly turned into a violent shudder as Redstone went through peak aerodynamic turbulence, causing Shepard’s helmeted head to hit the headrest. However, these vibrations stopped almost as soon as they started, and two minutes after launch, the rocket engine shut down as intended, creating an ethereal silence in the capsule. The first American in space has finally accomplished his mission.

Flying free from Redstone, Shepard had just a few minutes to test Freedom 7’s systems, rotating his craft through pitch, yaw and roll axes while traveling at 5,000 mph (8,000 km/h)—more than three times faster than every American in history. Weightlessness manifested itself with the comical appearance of floating dust and pucks before Shepard’s eyes. But the real spectacle was the view of the home planet itself.

Peering through the capsule’s periscope, Shepard saw Lake Okeechobee at the northernmost edge of the Everglades, as well as Andros Island, the shoals off Bimini, and the cloud-shrouded Bahamas. “What a beautiful sight,” he declared, addressing no one in particular.

Beautiful, indeed, but it was a sight he could only enjoy in monochrome, as Shepard had earlier moved a gray filter over the periscope to avoid glare from sunlight. For a brief moment he considered turning off the filter, but when his wrist inadvertently touched the Freedom 7’s break handle, he wisely reconsidered.

A helicopter retrieves Alan Shepard from the Atlantic Ocean after America’s first space flight on May 5, 1961 (Credit: NASA)

Shepard’s return to Earth imposed severe strains of 11 times the force of Earth’s gravity, leaving him briefly able to communicate only in guttural grunts. Four miles (6.4 km) above the Atlantic Ocean, Freedom 7’s arresting parachute deployed, followed by the orange-and-white main dome.

After America’s first space flight, Alan Shepard and Freedom 7 descend into view of the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain. And from the deck of the ship itself, hundreds of sailors cheered America’s newest hero—a hero whose extraordinary achievement set the United States on a path of space exploration that continues to this day.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *