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1st American in space honored 50 years later

Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, soaring 116 miles high in his Freedom 7 capsule. Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, soaring 116 miles high in his Freedom 7 capsule. (Ho/AFP/Getty Images)
Associated Press / May 6, 2011

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Fifty years to the moment Alan Shepard rocketed away, more than 100 Project Mercury workers joined former astronauts and NASA leaders at the original Redstone launch pad yesterday to celebrate the event that opened American space travel.

Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, soaring 116 miles high in his Freedom 7 capsule.

The Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin beat him into space by 23 days. Then, as now, those who helped launch Shepard took solace in the fact that “it was the first one for the free world.’’

Shepard died in 1998 at age 74. NASA played the original capsule recording of his voice for the entire 15-minute flight, during the hourlong ceremony.

“Roger, liftoff, and the clock has started,’’ Shepard called out, the boom of the liftoff in the background.

The recording of the flight was timed precisely to the second of the 9:34 a.m. launch time. A compilation of TV footage from that day played on a giant screen near the stage.

Shepard later became the fifth man to walk on the moon as commander of Apollo 14.