50 years ago on 5 May 1961, a few weeks after Gagarin, American Alan Shepard reached space. Several years later, he was to walk on the Moon, summarising as it were the race in which the Soviet Union and the United States were competing.
Alan Shepard in his typical, Mercury programme, silver spacesuit, just before he went aboard his Freedom 7 spaceship. Credit: NASA
The United States got a severe shock when Yuri Gagarin accomplished his historic orbit of the Earth (see this feature). Since Sputnik, the country had been engaged in a space race with the Soviet Union, whereby both countries used the slightest success to boast the respective merits of their political system. And it has to be said that the “Capitalist clan” regularly lost out to the “Reds from the east”.
A missile, just like Gagarin Created in 1958, NASA ran the space programme for the country of the star-spangled banner. Democratic President Kennedy, newly arrived at the White House (he was elected at the end of 1960 and began his mandate on 20 January 1961), inherited the efforts undertaken before him by Republican President Eisenhower. The American Space Agency had, therefore, already developed a capsule dubbed Mercury, and even a rocket with which to take it into space: a Redstone missile modified for this task. The similarity with the Soviet solution is worthy of note since the latter’s human space flight projects were also based on a rocket, the R7 - Semiorka (later known as Soyuz), originally designed to be used as a missile. However, the differences quickly become obvious as soon as we take a closer look at the weights involved; the Soviet Vostok weighing in at 4.7 tonnes whereas NASA’s Mercury capsule weighed less than 2 tonnes!
The Mercury capsule. America had to wait until 20 February 1962 before one of its astronauts, John Glenn, finally went into orbit, equally Gagarin’s exploit. But, in this case, it was not the Redstone but the Atlas rocket which was used. Credit: NASA
On 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union won the prestigious title of the first man sent into space whilst NASA had just completed Mercury’s final test flights; that of 31 January had, for instance, carried a monkey called Ham. Another flight, this time with one of the 7 astronauts selected in 1959, had even been envisaged for 6 March which would have been before Gagarin... Although the Soviet Union had a genius of an engineer in Sergei Korolev, the United States had their own astronautical brains, Werner Von Braun, the exact same one who had developed the V2 missile during the Second World War for the sinister Nazi regime. At the end of the conflict, he turned himself over to the Americans. The uncompromising Werner Von Braun was not totally satisfied with certain of Ham’s flight parameters and demanded an extra unmanned mission. NASA’s first human space flight was therefore pushed back from 6 March to 2 May...
A spaceship named Freedom In the end, it was Alan Shepard who was selected from amongst the military pilots known as the “Mercury 7”. This Navy test pilot was 37 years old (10 years older than Gagarin). He was married with 3 children. At Cape Canaveral in Florida, six days after the first Soviet cosmonaut’s historic flight, Alan Shepard settled into his cramped Mercury capsule, strictly a single-seater (Gagarin’s Vostok under the name of Voskhod was converted into two and three-seater versions, a complete impossibility for the American capsule). But this was to be a rehearsal. On 2 May 1961, the weather caused the launch to be cancelled just 2 hours and 20 minutes away from lift-off. Three days later, Florida’s weather conditions were favourable and Alan Shepard was woken at 01:10 in the morning. After a hearty breakfast and a medical examination, he was helped on with his silver spacesuit. Almost three hours later, he was aboard the van on his way to the launch pad. It was 06:25 when the hatch of the spaceship Mercury Freedom 7, atop the Redstone rocket, was closed. The number of the spaceship was justified by the fact that it was the seventh spaceship according to the numbering of its manufacturer, the company McDonnell. But the figure 7 was also a reference to the 7 astronauts selected by NASA and, furthermore, all the Mercury spaceships were to be dubbed in such a way as to include this symbolic number as this list shows: Liberty Bell 7 (July 1961), Friendship 7 (February 1962), Aurora 7 (May 1962), Sigma 7 (October 1962) and Faith 7 (May 1963).
Lift-off: a Redstone rocket propelled a Mercury capsule into space on 5 May 1961, but this time with a man (Alan Shepard) on board, after several tests which were unmanned or included a monkey. Credit: NASA
But before continuing, the Mercury programme had to start... and once again it was delayed! Various technical problems pushed back the time of the lift-off. Strapped into his capsule, Alan Shepard had to wait just over 4 hours. Moreover, he was forced to relieve himself inside his spacesuit (to do otherwise would have meant a long procedure to take him out of the spaceship). At 09:34 local Florida time, the Redstone rocket finally fired its engines and blasted off from launch pad LC-5. Shepard radioed down: “Roger. Lift-off and the clock has started”. He gave several technical parameters and ended this first report with a reassuring “All systems go”. Heavy vibration took place as the rocket gained speed to the point where the American had trouble reading his onboard instruments. Two minutes after lift-off, the vibration subsided but the astronaut was subjected to 6 times his weight under the effect of the acceleration. 22 seconds later, Freedom 7 was released from the Redstone at more than 8,000 km/h. The escape-tower, a small, red rocket mounted above the spaceship, then fired, not for an emergency extraction, but to provide the final boost which took Shepard up to the maximum altitude of his flight: 187.5 km. He then to returned to Earth by splashing down into the Atlantic Ocean about 480 km from where he started.
Alan Shepard aboard the Freedom 7 capsule. Credit: NASA
A deceptively disappointing suborbital flight The flight made by the first American was, therefore a suborbital flight. Contrary to Gagarin, Alan Shepard did not orbit the Earth, but accomplished in this instance a “flee hop” over the 100 km space frontier. Many observers found this mission disappointing in relation to Gagarin’s exploit, and felt that it once again underlined how far the United States were behind the Soviet Union. And yet, NASA’s spaceship already demonstrated undeniable technological progress which indicated that the trailing of the Americans was but an illusion. Furthermore, contrary to Gagarin, Alan Shepard manually piloted his spaceship to the summit of its trajectory, and the possibility of performing space manoeuvres was to become an influencing factor in the future of human space flights. After 15 minutes and 28 seconds of flight, Freedom 7 safely splashed down. Recovered by a helicopter and then taken with his capsule on to the aircraft carrier, Lake Champlain, Alan Shepard was congratulated on the telephone by President Kennedy.
Alan Shepard being recovered by a helicopter from the Atlantic Ocean on his return from his suborbital flight. Credit: NASA
As of this moment, things began to speed up as the young resident of the White House had realised the importance of space prestige on the international scene and its role in the Cold War and the United States’ fight for domination. Having missed out on the first two astronautical achievements, the first satellite and the first man, Kennedy and his advisors sought a new challenge. Suggestions included the first orbital station or sending astronauts to the Moon. It was the latter proposition that carried the day due to its obvious symbolic impact and the fact that it gave the Americans a real chance of winning a sort of technological repeat of the fable about the hare and the tortoise.
New objective: the Moon Just 20 days after Alan Shepard’s flight, on 25 May 1961, Kennedy officially announced before Congress the decision to go to the Moon in a forever famous speech (video below).
Alan Shepard is as it were the personification of the immense leap that NASA was to accomplish in order to carry off the challenge set by this President who was to be assassinated on 22 November 1963. Hero of a suborbital mission deemed disappointing as regards Soviet successes, he ended up walking on the Moon as Commander of Apollo 14 in 1971. He was then the oldest of NASA’s astronauts (see this Enjoy Space portfolio). After having left the Agency, he sat on the Board of Directors of several companies whilst managing his own company dubbed Seven Fourteen Enterprises Inc. where Seven refers to his Freedom 7 flight and Fourteen to his Apollo 14 lunar mission. He died on 21 July 1998 of leukaemia, an illness he had fought for 2 years.
Alan Shepard on the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission, of which he was Commander. Removed from space flights due to an illness of the inner ear, he underwent surgery and returned to NASA as an astronaut, which enabled him to become one of the 12 moonwalkers. Credit: NASA
Several years prior to his death, he took part as a guest of honour in the inauguration of Walt Disney World’s futuristic theme park, Epcot, in 1982. This gave him the chance to reiterate the importance of space for the future of Mankind. For instance, during the television programme filmed for the occasion, he talked with actor Danny Kaye and notably said that “if you look backward from now and then trace the progress of civilisation, you’ll see that basically there are only two directions that we can go: up into space or down into the depths of the sea. And, of course, over the years we’ve been doing research and experimentation in both areas and I don’t think that one necessarily precludes the other. But you might imagine that I hold the view that space is pretty exciting and has a great possibility of enhancing our lives in the future”. Their discussion can be seen in the video below as of the eighth minute.
NASA’s film below pays tribute to Alan Shepard, 50 years after his Mercury mission.
On Monday 6 August the Mars rover Curiosity should land on the red planet. From today Enjoy Space and Cité de l’Espace are offering you the chance to follow this event on Twitter, and then by video, direct from the NASA JPL in California!