NASA PHOTO: Freedom 7 lifts off from Cape Canaveral's LC-5
Freedom 7 was America's first manned space flight. Alan Shephard, Jr. was the astronaut strapped inside the tiny capsule that lifted off from Launch Complex 5 on May 5, 1961. The flight was short, just 15 minutes and 28 seconds from launch to splash down, but during the flight, the capsule that had flown monkeys into space, now was piloted by a man and had become the first spacecraft to by flown by an American
The goal of this mission was first to see if a man could survive the stress of liftoff, survive a period of weightlessness, complete a number of physical and mental challenges during this period of weightlessness, survive re-entry into the atmosphere, and survive splashdown in the Atlantic. The missions main goal was to see if man could survive.
In 1959 Alan Shephard was the chosen from 110 military test pilots that had been invited by the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to become one of what would later become known as the original 7.
Later, after Shepard's successful mission, reporters asked him what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket waiting for liftoff, he replied, "The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder."
Even though Freedom 7 and Alan Shephard were the 2nd manned flight into space, Shephard's flight was deemed to be more important than the Soviet's Gagarin flight 1 month early.
Most thought that Gagarin had only been a passenger in his vehicle while Shepard performed maneuvers as well as other adjustments throughout the flight. There was also an air of secrecy surrounding the Soviet mission while Shepard's flight, return from space, splashdown and recovery were seen on live television by millions around the world.
After his successful return, Shepard was celebrated as a national hero, honored with parades in Washington, New York and Los Angeles and received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy.
Alan Shepard would not return to space until 10 years later when he led Apollo XIV mission to the moon, the first lunar mission after the ill-fated Apollo XIII. It was Shepard on the surface of the moon batting golf balls that became one of the more memorable lunar feats.