May 5, 1961 — Former WWII combat veteran and Naval pilot Alan Shepard was strapped tight into his seat as he blasted upward out of the earth’s atmosphere. The Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket barreled through the sky, subjecting Shepard to 6.3g forces as he entered space and the engines shut off. The “tower,” or the main body of the rocket, detached, allowing the capsule called Freedom 7 containing Shepard to maneuver freely. He was the first American pioneer to step into the vast, empty expanses of space.

From there, Shepard had several objectives. He tested the Freedom 7‘s manual controls, conducting simple maneuvers like moving left and right, testing the yaw and the capsule’s ability to roll. He then went on to make observations of the ground from his perspective in space — he was the second human being to see the earth from space, after all.

After some other procedures, Shepard began his reentry. It turned out to be faster than he had expected, and he was subjected to up to 11.6g forces as he barreled back down to the earth, but he kept it steady until he was able to deploy the parachutes safely.

The Freedom 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, and a helicopter picked him up to return him to a nearby aircraft carrier, the USS Lake Champlain.

In regards to the landing, Shepard said that it, “… didn’t really feel the flight was a success until the recovery had been successfully completed. It’s not the fall that hurts; it’s the sudden stop.”

In total, the flight was 15 minutes and 22 seconds long.

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Only one other man had been to space, less than a month prior to Shepard’s mission. Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin had traveled outside our world in the Vostok spacecraft on April 12, much to the dismay of the Americans who were racing to beat their Soviet counterparts. However, much of the Soviet operation was cloaked in secrecy, while Shepard’s flight was broadcasted on television to the entire world. Millions watched his successful mission, likely from the edges of their seats.

Watch Shepard’s mission here:

For his actions, Shepard was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal by President John F. Kennedy, the highest award that can be given by the organization. That same year, the medal would also be awarded to Lt. Col. Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom, who would become the second American to fly to space, and the first to go twice.

Shepard was a Lieutenant-Commander at the time of his historic flight with the Freedom 7, but he would go on to become Rear Admiral. He would walk on the moon and helped secure the U.S.’s place in space exploration, setting a high bar for future generations to follow.

He was a devoted family man, and died from leukemia in 1998. He was 74 years old.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Video from lunarmodule5 YouTube channel.