On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space. One of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, Shepard boarded his Freedom 7 Mercury space capsule before dawn. He spent hours sitting on top of the NASA Mercury-Redstone rocket waiting for the OK from launch control at Cape Canaveral. The launch was delayed from its original 7am time until 9:34am Eastern. Alan Shepard’s flight was a sub-orbital one, only reaching an altitude of some 116 miles before returning to Earth. He splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean at 9:49am, the whole flight lasting a mere 15 minutes and 28 seconds. But it was enough to get Alan B. Shepard into the history books, as well as pop culture when Andy Warhol coined the term “15 minutes of fame.”

Alan B Shepard

A commander in the U.S. Navy, Shepard was a test pilot with over 8,000 flying hours under his belt. No stranger to danger, he readily volunteered for the Mercury program, joining NASA along with the other members of the Mercury 7 team: John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper. Big Al, as he was known, was a tough, no-nonsense guy, but not without a sense of humor. During the delay of his launch, he requested permission to relieve his bladder. After a debate over concerns of a short circuit in his space suit, Shepard did his duty and told launch control, “I’m cooler than you are.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Alan Shepard’s 1st American in Space flight today. Festivities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will include the United States Postal Service unveiling a new Forever stamp in honor of the occasion. Alan B. Shepard came very close to being the first man in space, but Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made his historic trip a month before on April 12, 1961. Still, there was plenty of work for everyone. Shortly after the first Mercury space flights, the race to the Moon began in earnest, ending on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface. Shepard himself made a Moon trip a board Apollo 14, which he made the longest golf ball drive in human history.

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