National Astronaut Day commemorates the launch of Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space.
Shepard's short but significant space flight is viewed as the first stepping stone for America's successful space missions.
First American In Space
On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Although the mission was canceled three days prior due to unfavorable weather conditions, Shepard boarded Freedom 7 at 5:15 a.m. and was finally launched into space over four hours later after further delays and repairs.
That day, millions of Americans watched the Mercury-Redstone rocket come to life and soon after, Shepard had a view of Earth that no other American had seen before. The flight went smoothly and lasted for 15 minutes and 22 seconds before the spacecraft splashed down near Cape Canaveral.
Three days later, Alan Shepard was at the White House Rose Garden where President John F. Kennedy awarded him with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
Then 20 days later, the president announced his next challenge to bring a man to the moon and return him safely back to Earth. This feat was achieved just eight years following Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins's historic moon mission.
Shepard's historic space flight set the stage for the rest of NASA's ambitious missions, but at the time, it was all the more relevant as the Cold War had nations on a race to send a human to space. In fact, less than a month before Shepard's launch, the Soviet Union made their own launch, making Yuri Gagarin the first human in space.
In that April 12, 1961 mission, Gagarin also completed an entire orbit of the Earth in his one hour and 29 minutes in space. It was John Glenn who became the first American to orbit the Earth a year after Shepard's successful mission.
"This was a very significant flight because the country needed this, The whole free world needed this flight at that time," said Ike Rigell, chief of Project Mercury Electrical Network Systems.
Shepard's Mission To The Moon
Ten years after his historic first mission, Shepard's second mission brought him to the moon, this time with Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell as his companions. On the mission, Shepard and his colleagues collected moon rocks and conducted science experiments on the moon's surface. Shepard also became the first person to hit a golf ball on the moon.
After his two missions, Shepard became the head of the Astronaut Office until he left the agency in 1974. His first step paved the way for bigger steps and leaps for America and for mankind.