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

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