Alan Shepard, shown entering his spacecraft at left, became the first American in space when he flew a 15-minute suborbital hop aboard Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. The flight came three weeks after the Soviet Union had launched the first man into space. Shepard's success emboldened President John F. Kennedy to launch the Moon Race just three weeks later. [NASA (2)]
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LAUNCH CONTROL: T-minus 15 seconds...
On a muggy Florida morning in 1961, Navy Commander Alan Shepard was ready to make history.
LAUNCH CONTROL: 3, 2, 1, zero. Ignition. Liftoff. SHEPARD: Roger, liftoff, and the clock has started.
50 years ago today, Shepard became the first American in space. His Mercury capsule, named Freedom 7, remained aloft for just 15 minutes, and splashed down just 300 miles from Cape Canaveral.
ANNOUNCER: It just hit the water a moment ago. A cheer went up from the ship's company watching here from all decks on the aircraft carrier...
Yet Shepard's flight put the United States back in the space race with the Soviet Union.
The Soviets had scored a series of major "firsts" in space. The most recent had happened just three weeks before Shepard's flight, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth -- a feat the Americans wouldn't match until February of 1962.
Still, the successful flight of Freedom 7 emboldened the new American president to set a lofty new goal for the space program. Just three weeks after Shepard's flight, John F. Kennedy committed the United States to landing astronauts on the Moon by the end of the decade. Not only was the mission accomplished, but Shepard himself walked on the Moon, too -- a decade after his historic hop aboard Freedom 7.