“Liftoff and the clock has started!” Those were Alan Shepard’s first words to mission control as his Mercury-Redstone rocket lifted itself from Launch Complex 5 in Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961. Shepard left Earth’s surface that day at 9:34 a.m. and minutes later became the first American in space.
Shepard was launched on a ballistic trajectory, that is, his space capsule went in an arcing path into space — which is defined as starting 100 kilometers (62 miles) above Earth’s surface — and then fell back to Earth for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
The flight of the first American in space lasted only 15 minutes, 22 seconds. During his brief voyage, Shepard reached a maximum speed of 5,134 mph, attained an altitude of 116.5 miles and landed 303 miles downrange. At liftoff, he was subjected to a thrust that was nine times his weight. Then he experienced 11 “g’s” as the air slowed his speeding spaceship upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere,
Although Shepard was the first American in space, his flight path did not take him on an orbital trip around Earth but on a suborbital flight in his capsule — named Freedom 7 — that only curved up into space and then down again.
The distinction of being the first human in space, as well as the first to circle Earth, went to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who made the orbital flight only three weeks before Freedom 7 flew.
America’s first orbital flight came with the third mission of the Mercury space program when John Glenn made three orbits around Earth. A Mercury-Atlas rocket, more powerful than the Redstone in order to achieve orbit, carried Glenn into space on Feb. 20, 1962. Between the space flights of Shepard and Glenn, a second manned Mercury-Redstone sent Virgil “Gus” Grissom on another suborbital trip that lasted 15 minutes, 37 seconds.
In 1959, Shepard, as well as Glenn, Grissom and four other men were selected from a group of 110 military pilots. They underwent a rigorous physical and psychological selection process to become America’s first astronauts — the Mercury 7. They were the men with the “right stuff.”
The Mercury 7 astronauts were introduced to the American public at a press conference in Washington D.C. on April 9, 1959. From then on, the American people began a vicarious participation in Project Mercury and a love affair with the seven “argonauts” who were going to sail into the new, uncharted “ocean” of outer space.
After his Freedom 7 flight, Shepard was scheduled to fly the Mercury-Atlas 10 mission in a space capsule named Freedom-II. This was to be a three-day extended mission and the last flight of the Mercury space program. Following this mission, the two-man Gemini space flights would begin.
However, after the success of a 34-hour, 22-orbital mission by Gordon Cooper on the Mercury-Atlas 9 flight in May 1963, the Mercury space program was ended. Shepard was then reassigned to be the command pilot of the first two-man Gemini mission.
But in early 1964, he was diagnosed with an inner ear disorder that caused dizziness and disorientation, so he was removed from flight status for most of the 1960s. In 1969, he underwent a newly developed surgical technique for his condition. The procedure was successful and Shepard was restored to full flight status. He was then assigned to be the commander of Apollo 13, the third planned moon-landing mission.
NASA management overrode Shepard’s assignment because they felt he needed more time to train since his surgery, so the original crew of Apollo 14 — James Lovell, Ken Mattingly and Fred Haise — was swapped with Shepard and his crewmates who went to the moon on Apollo 14.
Lovell and his crew flew the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. (Mattingly was replaced three days before launch by Jack Swigert at the insistence of the flight surgeon after Mattingly was exposed to German measles.)
Shepard finally got his chance to fly into space again — and to the moon — on Jan. 31, 1971, as part of the Apollo-Saturn missions. As in all the moon missions, Shepard and his crew were launched into space on the world’s most powerful operational machine ever built, the Saturn V rocket.
When Shepard left for the moon, he was the oldest astronaut in the program. He was the only one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts to go to the moon. Once he made his moon landing and stepped away from the lunar lander onto the moon’s surface, his first words were, “It’s been a long way, but we’re here.”
Shepard’s words not only referred to his personal triumph but also to the problems he and his crew encountered on their way to the moon and its surface. The most precarious were two anomalies they experienced on their lunar descent that almost caused their Apollo 14 moon landing to be aborted.
Besides being best known as the first American is space, Shepard is also recognized as the first golfer on the moon. There, he attached the head of a 6 iron to the handle of his lunar rock scoop and belted two golf balls with this improvised “club.” He had to use a one-handed swing due to the limited mobility of his space suit. After he hit the second ball, he shouted that it went for “miles and miles” in the low gravity of the moon.
Later, he estimated that it actually went about 200 to 400 yards. His fellow moon walker, Edgar Mitchell, next used a lunar scoop handle as a javelin, creating the first “Lunar Olympics.”
After Apollo 14, Shepard returned to NASA administration, resuming his position as chief of the Astronaut Office. He was promoted to rear admiral before retiring from NASA and the Navy in 1974.
When a reporter asked Shepard what he thought about while sitting atop his Redstone rocket waiting to be launched in 1961, he replied, “The fact that every part of this ship is built by the low bidder.”
Godspeed, our American space heroes.
Richard Monda is an astronomer living in the Capital Region.