First American in Space: Anniversary of Alan Shepard's Launch

It was a Friday morning when NASA astronaut Alan Shepard climbed into the Freedom 7 capsule and blasted off to space to make history. Just 23 days prior, the Soviet Union had successfully sent Yuri Gagarin to space, a setback in the race for space for the United States.

It's been 58 years since Shepard became the first American to ever reach space. On May 6, 1961, he successfully completed a 15 minute and 22 second flight.

Shepard was a Mercury 7 astronaut, one of the first astronauts NASA ever chose for the space program. His experience in the Navy serving in WWII and as a test pilot after the war helped prepare him for a career as an astronaut.

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Astronaut Alan Shepard, in his Mercury pressure suit, poses for a photo prior to his launch in a Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. Shepard was the first American to travel to space. NASA

The morning of the launch, Shepard was originally scheduled to lift off at 7:20 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, but the launch was delayed due to clouds, according to NASA.

The next issue was electrical: An inverter needed replacing and then a computer at Goddard Space Center, where the flight was being monitored, needed checking. In all, the delays pushed the launch to 9:34 a.m., more than two hours after the original launch time. The Redstone rocket roared to space and Shepard reached a height of 116 miles above the Earth before he safely returned and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by an aircraft carrier.

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NASA astronaut Alan Shepard and the Freedom 7 were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean after Shepard became the first American to travel to space. NASA

While Shepard was the first American to go to space, he wasn't the first one to orbit the Earth. Mercury 7 astronaut, John Glenn, was the first American to orbit the planet the following year. Shepard returned to space with a mission to the moon in 1971, 10 years after his first mission. During his second mission, Apollo 14, he landed on the moon where he conducted experiments and collected moon rocks with his fellow NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell.

The trip to the moon was Shepard's last trip to space but he continued working for NASA. He was the head of the Astronaut Office until he retired in 1974, according to NASA.