Alan Shepard: First American in Space

Alan Shepard became the first American in space when the Freedom 7 spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 5, 1961, aboard a Mercury-Redstone rocket. Ten years later, Shepard would leave Earth's atmosphere again to become the fifth man to walk on the moon — and the first one to play a bit of lunar golf.

Born on Nov. 18, 1923, to Renza Emerson and Alan Shepard, Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. grew up in rural New Hampshire. After graduating from high school, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated on June 7, 1944, one day after D-Day. Shepard spent the last year of World War II on a destroyer in the Pacific.

During the next 15 years, Shepard served in the Navy in various capacities. He received a civilian pilot's license while in naval flight training and spent several tours on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. He attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1950 and participated in developmental tests for various aircraft. He also tested landing on the first angled carrier deck. Shepard later became an instructor in the Test Pilot School and logged more than 8,000 hours of flight time during his career. [Photos: Freedom 7, America's 1st Human Spaceflight]

He attended the Naval War College in Rhode Island and following his 1957 graduation, was assigned as an aircraft readiness officer on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet.

Shepard's time with NASA

In 1959, 110 test pilots were invited to volunteer for the spaceflight program headed by the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although Shepard was on the list, his invitation was misplaced and he initially did not receive an offer, according to NASA. Regardless, he was eventually selected as one of the first seven astronauts for the organization. Known as the Mercury 7, the group included John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Donald "Deke" Slayton, Malcolm "Scott" Carpenter, Walter "Wally" Schirra and Gordon Cooper. From this prestigious group of highly trained fliers, Shepard was selected to pilot the first flight into space, with Glenn acting as his backup.

The stakes were raised in the space race on April 15, 1961, when the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and he became the first person to orbit the Earth, flying in space for 108 minutes.

The Soviets beat the Americans by less than a month. Shepard's launch was initially scheduled for May 2 but was rescheduled twice because of weather conditions. On May 5, Freedom 7 lifted off, carrying Shepard to an altitude of 116 miles (187 kilometers) for a 15-minute suborbital flight. Because of the placement of the porthole windows, the first American in space was unable to catch a glimpse of the stars, and he was strapped in too tight to experience weightlessness. Also, a filter left on the periscope window made the Earth appear black and white. [Mercury Redstone 3: Photos from Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 Spaceflight]

Although the Soviets had reached the historic milestone first, and Gagarin had achieved a longer orbital flight, Shepard's suborbital flight still made a significant worldwide impact. Unlike with Gagarin, Shepard's launch, flight and splashdown were watched on live television by millions of people. While Gagarin's name was publicized, many of the details of his flight were kept confidential for more than a decade – such as the fact that he parachuted to Earth, rather than landing in his spacecraft. For Shepard's daring achievement, U.S. President John F. Kennedy awarded him the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. [Infographic: America's First Spaceship: Project Mercury]

Shepard worked on the ground for subsequent flights in the Mercury program and was scheduled to pilot the Mercury 10 mission. But after successfully putting an astronaut in orbit for a full day in 1963 with Faith 7 (piloted by Gordon Cooper), NASA decided to close the first manned space program and move on with Gemini, the next step on the journey toward the moon. Astronauts in Gemini practiced docking spacecraft in orbit and performing spacewalks, two skills that would be required for moon landings.

NASA selected Shepard to be part of the first crewed Gemini mission, which was called Gemini 3. However, he woke one morning dizzy and nauseated, and found himself falling constantly. He was subsequently diagnosed with Ménière's disease. Fluid in his inner ear had built up, increasing the sensitivity of the semicircular canals and causing vertigo. Shepard was grounded in 1963, forbidden from solo flights in jet planes and from traveling in space.

Shepard switched gears, taking over as the Chief of the Astronaut Office for NASA. He oversaw the activities, training and schedules of the astronauts, and assisted with mission planning.

In 1969, Shepard underwent an operation that resolved his disease and allowed him to regain full flight status. Shepard, Stuart Roosa and Ed Mitchell were initially scheduled to fly on Apollo 13, but they were pushed back a mission to give everyone extra training, especially Shepard. Shepard was subsequently named commander for the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. This meant that when the Apollo 13 spacecraft was badly crippled by an explosion during its voyage and had to make an emergency return to Earth, Shepard was not on board. His crew also benefited from safety improvements to the spacecraft following the Apollo 13 flight, such as changes to the electrical wiring. [Lunar Legacy: 45 Apollo moon Mission Photos]

To the moon

Shepard blasted back into space from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 31, 1971. He and Mitchell landed in the Fra Mauro highlands on the lunar surface on Feb. 7. At age 47, Shepard was the oldest astronaut in the space program at the time. Before leaving the lunar surface, Shepard, an avid golfer, unfolded a collapsible golf club and hit two balls. The first landed in a nearby crater, but according to Shepard, the second flew for "miles and miles." (In reality, the second ball likely landed about 655 feet away, or 200 meters, according to partner site collectSPACE.)

Shepard and Mitchell spent more than 33 hours on the moon, the longest time any crew had stayed up to that mission. Shepard and Mitchell also spent more time outside of their craft than previous astronauts had, logging 9 hours and 17 minutes. They brought home 94 pounds (nearly 43 kilograms) of lunar samples, including two rocks exceeding 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) apiece.

Over his two space flights, Shepard logged a total of 216 hours and 57 minutes in space.

Shepard's legacy

After Apollo 14, Shepard continued his crucial behind-the-scenes role as the Chief Astronaut at NASA, making him the person responsible for astronaut training and giving him a voice in deciding which astronauts would be flying in the Gemini program. Many of the astronauts in Gemini went on to fly the Apollo missions, with several Gemini veterans even making it to the moon.

In 1974, Shepard retired from NASA as a rear admiral. He started working in the private sector and created an umbrella company for his diverse business interests, Seven Fourteen Enterprises, named for the Freedom 7 and Apollo 14 missions.

In 1984, he worked with the other surviving Mercury astronauts and the widow of Apollo 1 victim Gus Grissom to establish the Mercury Seven Foundation. Later renamed the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, the organization is still in existence today and raises money for college students studying science and engineering.

Shepard died on July 21, 1998, from complications of leukemia, at age 74. His wife died just over a month later, on Aug. 25.

Further Reading:

This article was updated on Oct. 10, 2018, by Contributor, Elizabeth Howell. 

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Nola Taylor Tillman
Contributing Writer

Nola Taylor Tillman is a contributing writer for She loves all things space and astronomy-related, and enjoys the opportunity to learn more. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Astrophysics from Agnes Scott college and served as an intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. In her free time, she homeschools her four children. Follow her on Twitter at @NolaTRedd