Alan Shepard: First American in Space

A man in a shiny spacesuit smiles at the camera.
First American in Space
Alan Shepard

U.S. Navy test pilot Alan Shepard joined the astronaut program in 1959.
He became the first American and the second man in space on May 5, 1961, when he piloted the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7 on a 490-kilometer (300-mile), 15-minute suborbital flight.
He would return to space nearly a decade later as an Apollo astronaut. 

Meet the Man

More About Shepard's History Making Flight

A detail of Alan Shepard's spacesuit featuring the "meatball" patch, a blue circle with the text "NASA" on it and a red swoop.
Suiting Up
Alan Shepard's Spacesuit

The suit was snug-fitting and would pressurize the lower body to avoid blood pooling in the pilot’s legs. The suit was adapted from its original cockpit design to one that would integrate into a spacecraft, the Mercury capsule. Engineers added additional buckles and pulleys to keep the suit in place for that one minute of microgravity that Shepard would experience during his flight. They added restraints to the shoulders so that the astronaut’s arms would not float uncontrolled while weightless. The gloves of the suit also feature fingertip flashlights so that the astronaut could focus a beam of light on any given point in the cockpit. 

View Object Record
Mercury MR-3 Capsule
The Spacecraft
Freedom 7

Shepard named the Mercury capsule he flew in "Freedom 7," the number signifying the seven Mercury astronauts; NASA called the mission Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3). 

NASA gave "Freedom 7" to the Smithsonian in October 1961, the first crewed spacecraft accessioned into the Smithsonian's collection. 

View Object Record

Paving the Way

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at a press conference
First Human in Space
Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin was a young Soviet air force pilot when selected with 20 others for cosmonaut training in 1960. His historic single orbit around Earth on April 12, 1961, took only 108 minutes from ignition to landing. After Gagarin returned and the Soviet press released news of his flight, he became an international hero.

How He Was Celebrated
NASA launched the chimpanzee Ham on a suborbital flight in January 1961.
To Boldly Go
Where No Man Has Gone Before

Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard may have been the first people in space, but they weren't the first living creatures. 

The Soviet Union launched the dog Laika into space in November 1957 and proved it was possible to maintain life in space for at least a limited amount of time. 

NASA launched a chimpanzee on a suborbital flight in January 1961.

Meet Ham, the chimpanzee that went to space

What Comes Next

Meet the Team
Mercury 7

Shepard was part of the the "Mercury Seven," the seven American astronauts who would participate in the first human spaceflight program in the United States, Project Mercury. The other members of the seven were: Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. 

The seven were selected from over 100 candidates who met the minimum standards set by NASA. The standards included: being a qualified jet pilot, a graduate of test pilot school, under 40, in excellent physical condition, and less than 5 feet 11 inches tall (to comfortably fit in the spacecraft). The candidates who met that criteria then went through physical, mental, and psychological testing as part of the selection process. 

Six of the Mercury Seven astronauts would travel to space during the Mercury program. (Deke Slayton who was originally grounded due to health concerns would eventually travel to space as part of the Apollo-Soyuz mission.)

  Alan Shepard Virgil Grissom John Glenn Scott Carpenter Walter Schirra Gordon Cooper
Spacecraft Freedom 7 Liberty Bell 7 Friendship 7 Aurora 7 Sigma 7 Faith 7
Date May 5,
1961
July 21,
1961
February 20,
1962
May 24,
1962
October 3,
1962
May 15,
1963
Flight Time 0:15 0:15 4:55 4:55 9:13 1 day, 10:20
Orbits Suborbital Suborbital 3 3 6 22

 

Astronaut John Glenn Climbing into the Mercury Spacecraft
Spotlight on Another Mercury 7 Astronaut
John Glenn

John Glenn became perhaps the most famous of the Mercury Seven astronauts, when he became the first American to orbit the Earth. (Yuri Gagarin was also the first person to orbit the Earth during his historic 1961 flight.)

His service to his country did not begin or end there, however. A U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot, Glenn was decorated veteran of two wars, a U.S. Senator for Ohio, and an astronaut again when he traveled into space for the second time in 1998He still holds the record as the oldest person ever to fly in space. (He flew nine days, October 29 to November 7, 1998, in Discovery as a payload specialist. NASA assigned him to Space Shuttle mission STS-95, with the purpose of researching the effects of spaceflight on the aging body. )

How John Glenn Suited Up for His First Spaceflight

The Mercury Program was just the beginning for NASA, and for Shepard.

While best known for the famous first US spacewalk, the Gemini Program met many other objectives that extended the US capability to conduct human spaceflight missions.

Shepard served at Chief Astronaut during the Gemini Program.

On July 20, 1969, humans walked on the Moon for the first time — and returned to walk on the lunar surface five more times.

Shepard returned to space during the Apollo program as part of the Apollo 14 mission. He is the only one of the Mercury 7 astronauts to walk on the moon. 

The famous “Handshake in Space,” the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was the first American-Soviet space flight, docking the last American Apollo spacecraft with the then-Soviet Soyuz spacecraft.

Mercury Seven astronaut Deke Slayton finally made it to space during this mission.