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Alan Shepard, first American in space

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Just sixty years ago, on May 5, 1961, nearly 45 million American television viewers stood in front of their televisions to watch one of their own, astronaut Alan Shepard, take to space for the first time. times from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. Its flight only lasts about fifteen minutes, but it will mark the history of the country forever.

A bit bitter achievement

A few days earlier, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had already attempted and succeeded in flying to space aboard his Vostok 1. Alan Shepard, American astronaut, had learned the news with frustration. and a lot of anger. One of the astronauts of the Mercury 7 program Selected to pilot America’s first crewed spacecraft, he had indeed trained hard for 21 weeks and won the right to be the first person in history to find his way into space.

Ultimately, he will be the second. The feat is all the more bitter as Shepard will only offer a suborbital flight of a few minutes before plunging into the Atlantic, while Gagarin was placed in orbit around the Earth.

This hard blow was not the first. At that time, the Mercury project had indeed faced many delays. A few years earlier, an Atlas rocket had even exploded after less than a minute in flight. These failures were all the more humiliating because, due to NASA’s policy of total transparency, they had been exposed to the general public.

Alan Shepard in his Freedom 7 capsule. Credits: NASA

The long-awaited flight

The May 5 launch comes after several delays due to bad weather. D-Day is not easy either. At minus 15 minutes, one of the IBM 7090 computers at the Goddard Space Flight Center indeed developed an error requiring rechecking, and therefore a delay of more than two hours.

All in all, Shepard remains seated in his capsule (named Freedom 7) for four hours and fourteen minutes. After three hours, the astronaut, unable to restrain himself, then asks permission to urinate in his suit. Despite the control center’s refusal, he relieved himself anyway. The flow of oxygen from his suit then took care of drying everything.

Meanwhile, unlike Gagarin who took off in the utmost secrecy, Shepard takes center stage with several hundred journalists present on the scene and several million viewers in front of their television set in black and white.

Alan shepard
Mercury Redstone 3 takes off. Credit: NASA

Short hop

Two minutes and twenty-four seconds after taking off at 9:34 a.m., Shepard’s capsule finally separated from the Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) rocket booster. Eleven seconds later, the autopilot takes care of orienting the ship so as to present its heat shield face down.

Just five minutes after takeoff, Shepard then took manual control of the craft at about 185 km altitude, operates a few maneuvers, before returning to autopilot for a controlled reentry. As he falls, the astronaut tries to see a few stars through the tiny portholes of his capsule, to no avail.

Alan shepard
Earth seen from Mercury Redstone 3. Credits: NASA

Barely ten minutes after taking off, her capsule’s main parachute finally deployed to let it drift towards the recovery zone in the North Atlantic, off the Bahamas. The whole mission will have in everything and for everything lasted only 15 minutes and 22 seconds.

By today’s standards, this suborbital mission was relatively straightforward, but in 1961 it confirmed that the United States had mastered the technology to send a human safely into space.


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