50 years of US spaceflight: Alan Shepard, May 5, 1961


Image above, NASA.

On May 5, 1961, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard piloted his Freedom 7 Mercury capsule in a 15-minute suborbital flight, becoming America's first astronaut. In this image, he is shown being hoisted aboard a U.S. Marine helicopter after splashdown. The flight carried him to an altitude of 116 statute miles.

Below, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued the following statement today, Thursday, May 5, 2011, about the 50th anniversary of United States human spaceflight.

50 years ago today, Alan Shepard rocketed into space on America's first manned space mission. That flight set our nation on a path of exploration and discovery that continues to this day.

May 5, 1961, was a good day. When Alan Shepard launched toward the stars that day, no American had ever done so, and the world waited on pins and needles praying for a good outcome. The flight was a great success, and on the strength of Shepard's accomplishment, NASA built the leadership role in human spaceflight that we have held ever since.

I was a teenager at the time and just sorting out the field of study I wanted to pursue. Though I never dared dream it growing up in segregated South Carolina, I was proud to follow in Alan's footsteps several years later and become a test pilot myself. The experiences I've had would not have been possible without Alan's pioneering efforts. The inspiration that has created generations of leaders to enlarge our understanding of our universe and to strive toward the highest in human potential was sparked by those early achievements of our space program. They began with Freedom 7 and a daring test pilot who flew the ultimate experimental vehicle that May day 50 years ago.

Today we celebrate a first -- and we celebrate the future. Project Mercury gave our country something new, including an astronaut corps and the space vehicles that began our human exploration efforts.

I encourage everyone to not only remember that remarkable achievement, but to be reminded that we are still driven to reach for new heights in human exploration.

At NASA, each first is grown and expanded until we make the next breakthrough. 50 years ago, we sent the first American into space. Today we have a space station flying 250 miles overhead right now on which men and women have lived continuously for more than 10 years.

With the same spirit of innovation and grit of those early days of space flight, we now move out on an exciting path forward where we will develop the capabilities to take humans to even more destinations in the solar system. With our support and assistance, commercial companies will expand access to that rarefied area Alan Shepard first trod for America, allowing NASA to focus on those bigger, more challenging destinations and to enable our science missions to peer farther and farther beyond our solar system.

We are just getting started. Our future, as an agency and as a country, holds many more firsts. We know the next 50 years will be just as exciting as the last - filled with discovery, innovation and inspiration.


  1. i hope with the shuttle program gone we don’t go back to the rescue mode of landing.

  2. I did a double take wondering why he wasn’t wearing a helmet if he was doing an EVA. Then I realized it was the OCEAN right under him, not the Earth seen from orbit…

    1. Lies. NASA is just embarrassed to admit that they made astronauts hold their breath back then.

    2. I know, right? What suddenly clued me in was the fact that he didn’t have a helmet. And also why would a spacecraft have a tire on it?

    3. Alan Shepard: the only man to survive an unprotected orbital-helicopter EVA.

      That REALLY looks like a picture of the earth. Wierd.

    4. I thought the same thing! Clouds seen from space can look a lot like these ripples on water. Ah, the many patterns found in nature…

  3. We need to get Gilliam to draw a Spam with Wings Award.

    Seriously though, considering the number of failures the US moon program was having, Shepard needed Jupiter and Saturn balls to get in that can. And probably a couple of fairy dustings to get out of it.

  4. Indeed, one of the greatest moments in the history of astronautics ;]

    (Actually, yes it was, I know).

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