Alan Shepard first American astronaut in space 1961

Updated: May 1

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.

Alan Shepard first American astronaut Image Credit NASA

Less than a month after Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, Mercury astronaut Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space, and the first person to manually control the orientation of his spacecraft. He was selected as one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts in 1959, and on May 5th 1961 he made the first manned flight of the Mercury Project. His craft entered space reaching an altitude of 116 statute miles (187 km) , but did not achieve orbit. Shepard's launch was initially scheduled for May 2 but was rescheduled twice because of weather conditions. In the final stages of Project Mercury, Shepard was scheduled to pilot the Mercury-Atlas 10 which was planned as a three-day mission, but the mission was cancelled.

Mercury-Redstone 3 (Freedom 7) space craft

Pictured right is the Mercury-Redstone 3 (Freedom 7) space craft. The objective Mercury-Redstone 3, was to put astronaut Alan Shepard into orbit around the Earth and return him safely. Shepard's mission, a suborbital flight with the primary objective of demonstrating his ability to withstand the high g-forces of launch and atmospheric re-entry lasted 15 minutes.

The Soviet Vistok 1 the spacecraft that launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, completed the first ever manned orbit of the earth, was 3 times the size of the Mercury spacecraft. Although the Soviets had reached the historic milestone first, Shepard's suborbital flight made a significant worldwide impact because its launch, travel 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.

Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 mission, piloting the Apollo Lunar Module Antares to the most accurate landing of the Apollo missions. At age 47, he became the fifth and oldest person to walk on the Moon, and the only one of the Mercury Seven astronauts to do so. Shepard and Mitchell spent 33 and a half hours on the moon, the longest stay time, while Roosa piloted the command module up above. Shepard and Mitchell also spent more time outside of their craft than previous astronauts had, logging 9 hours and 17 minutes. 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 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.

Supporting video: HelmerReenberg Alan Shepard received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President Kennedy for his May 5 1961 space flight.