Retro Action, May 5, 1961: Alan Shepard Becomes the First American in Space

Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.
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Shepard is lifted up to the helicopter after splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Mercury capsule (Photo: Getty Images)

Fifty years ago today, test pilot Alan Shepard soared 116 miles above the Earth and became the second person — and first American — to reach space. 

Unlike the successful Soviet mission three weeks earlier, Mercury's Freedom 7 capsule was not computer-automated, requiring a pilot with uncommon technical skill. As a Naval Academy standout, the steely Shepard was NASA's first choice for the job.

"That was competition at its best," said Shepard later. "Not because of the fame or the recognition that went with it, but because of the fact that America's best test pilots went through this selection process down to seven guys, and of those seven, I was the first one to go. That will always be the most satisfying thing for me."

Watched by millions on television, Shepard returned to Earth a national hero, with parades held in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Ten years later, during the Apollo 14 mission, the astronaut made history again by become the fifth man to walk on the moon — and the first to golf there.

But even with his later accomplishments, the famously reserved Shepard still held the memory of his historic solo Mercury-Redstone mission close.

"In the helicopter, flying back to the carrier, and seeing thousands of sailors on the deck of the carrier.... it was sort of like coming home. Except that there they were cheering for me," he recalled in a 1991 interview.

"And that was probably the first moment of the flight when I felt the emotion of success — perhaps pride — in what I had done."

After a two-year battle with leukemia, Shepard passed away in Pebble Beach, CA in 1998. But he's still making history: the late-astronaut was honored yesterday by the U.S. Postal Service with his very own stamp, the first ever featuring a specific astronaut.


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