Alan B. Shepard, Jr. lived twice as long as many people expected. On May 5, 1961, at the age of 37, he was streaking toward the edge of the earth’s atmosphere and, according to the skeptics, certain death.
On that day almost a half-century ago, Shepard rode a Redstone rocket to an altitude of 115 miles to become the first American in space. While its ballistic trajectory carried him a mere 302 miles downrange from the Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch site into the Atlantic Ocean, Shepard’s 15-minute flight catapulted the United States into the manned space race with the Soviet Union—one which, until that moment, had literally been a one-man race.
In comparison to the eventual American Moon landings under Apollo, the success of the Space Shuttle, and now the current achievements of the International Space Station, Shepard’s suborbital pop seems to fade in significance. One must not be too flippant, however, toward those first steps in 1961. Shepard’s flight was a milestone in the technological, political and psychological contest with the Soviet Union. The space race was the “hot zone” of the Cold War.
A Race to the High Ground
The starting gun of the race to celestial dominance sounded as a series of electronic pings from the Russian Sputnik in October 1957. Launched to coincide with the International Geophysical Year (a worldwide scientific effort to study the Earth as a planet—see “Before and After Earth Day”), Sputnik was immediately viewed as a sign of Soviet communist might and American scientific and democratic mediocrity.
Suddenly the “good life” of America’s post-war economic boom was under siege. The worried national tone was reflected and advanced by Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire who claimed, as reported in a 1957 Time article, “The time has clearly come to be less concerned with the depth of pile on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tail fin on the new car and to be more prepared to shed blood, sweat and tears if this country is to be free and the world [is] to survive” (“Red Moon Over the U.S.”).
Thus from its outset, the “race” was framed in terms of war and human domination, not domination of unknown territory for the sake of science and human curiosity, but of domination of man over man.
On October 1, 1958, America’s scattered rocketry efforts were brought under one civilian authority, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA. Its Space Task Group would become the Manned Spaceflight organization that would engineer America’s ultimate first-crossing of the moon landing finish line.
The initial challenge was the selection of astronaut trainees. President Eisenhower determined that military test pilots would be the candidates. A recruitment letter was sent out to the 110 of 508 test pilots in America that met a range of criteria. Candidates would first have to meet national security requirements. They also had to have a bachelor’s degree, be younger than 40 years old, less than 5 feet 11 inches tall and weigh less than 180 lbs. After all, a larger man would require a larger vehicle; space capsules would be just that: compact not Cadillac.
Alan Shepard met all the requirements but he did not get a letter. His was lost in the mail. Yet Shepard was not deterred and he tracked down the missing invitation.
Who Will Be First?
On December 17,1958 (Wright Brothers Day), as the pilots assembled at Langley Research Center in Virginia, NASA’s Project Mercury was announced. By March, through a great battery of physical and mental tests (well described in Tom Wolfe’s bestseller The Right Stuff, 1979), the field of 110 was cut to 32 on its way down to a projected six. In the end, they could only cut to seven, the final candidates being almost identically qualified in all respects.
On April 9, 1959, Lt. Col. John Glenn of the Marines, Air Force Captains Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper, and Gus Grissom, and Navy Lt. Scott Carpenter and Lt. Commanders Wally Schirra and Alan Shepard were introduced to the world as the “Mercury Seven.” In Moonshot, a book coauthored with Alan Shepard in 1994, Slayton would later write of the moment and the adulation and emotion of the press, that the assembly was “applauding us like we’ve already done something, like we were heroes or something.”
Indeed, these men who had made their living by doing, by flying, by displaying the moxie to “stretch the envelope of man and machine . . . to have the ‘right stuff’” as Wolfe described it, found it disconcerting to be given such a reception for merely “showing up.” It seems these seven did not yet realize that they were the gladiators of the day—willing not only to take on the challenge of putting on the proper armor to face the unknown of space, but of the Soviets as well.
Today, when we routinely send men into space, it is easy to forget that in the late 1950s there was tremendous anxiety about firing a human being into space strapped atop a rocket. “Spam in a can,” was legendary pilot Chuck Yeager’s remark. The possibility for fatal accidents in both training and the mission itself were great. Therefore, NASA deemed it important that each astronaut have the psychological capacity not only to bond with the other team members, but also to cut ties, regroup and create new teams quickly.
NASA was also concerned that if the American public knew in advance who would make the historic flight, the chosen astronaut might come to personify the program. Becoming a celebrity was not in itself a problem as all of the nascent astronauts enjoyed celebrity status. It was believed, however, that the loss of a more anonymous man in an accident would cause less public discouragement and political fall-out. Therefore, the agency determined to keep the flight assignments secret.
So, unknown to the press and public, Shepard had already been assigned to the first Mercury flight when John Kennedy was sworn in as President in 1961. He notes in Moonshot that when he got home from the office the night of his selection, he shouted to his wife, Louise, “Lady, you can’t tell anyone, but you have your arms around the man who’ll be first in space!” To which she mocked, “Who let a Russian in here?”
Her question was prophetic. For as the Americans tested, misfired and retested their booster rockets and Mercury spacecraft with monkey and chimpanzee occupants, the Russians also methodically moved toward “Zazhiganiye!”—ignition.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the world’s first cosmonaut. The Vostok spacecraft orbited the Earth once and then reentered the atmosphere. At 23,000 feet, Gargarin was ejected and parachuted to the ground. It was a lonely reception; two peasants and a cow met him on the Siberian plain where he landed.
The successful flight carried implications much greater than national bragging rights about being first in space. People the world over were both amazed and alarmed; if the Russians now had the rocket power to orbit a man, they could also hit any spot on earth with a nuclear missile. Little has changed in this regard in the ensuing years as other countries have joined the space business. Rocket know-how always carries with it the payload of the darker intentions of man, undertones of ballistic missiles and nuclear power plays.
From the Bay of Pigs to the Moon
The Soviet success was overwhelming; the race was apparently over. The head of Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee, Jerome Wiesner of M.I.T., recommended that America concede space to the Russians. He believed the U.S. could never catch up and that it would be a futile and expensive campaign that would create even more political damage. On the day that Yuri Gargarin entered space, President Kennedy called a news conference to announce that the U.S. “would not try to match the Soviet achievements in space, choosing instead ‘other areas where we can be first and which will bring more long-range benefits to mankind.’”
Five days later, on April 17, Kennedy secretly promised support to an insurrection against Fidel Castro. Yet when the invasion began, the President refused to send American air cover. The fiasco at the Bay of Pigs could not have come at a worse time as it further eroded America’s credibility. The survivors of the brief war and many in the international press branded Kennedy, and by implication the United States, a coward: unsure and impotent. Communism, exemplified both on the ground and in space, seemed a juggernaut poised to overtake the West.
This incident further fueled Kennedy’s desire to one-up the Soviets. He charged the vice president with supervision over the manned space program. In an April 20th memo, Lyndon Johnson was tasked with finding a way of doing something in space that the United States could do first. “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man?” Johnson asked. “Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”
Going to the moon was the obvious target. It would be a mission that stretched far enough into the future that America’s ingenuity and “right stuff” could prevail. The moon became a political target for nationalistic conquest, not scientific exploration. According to John Barbour’s 1969 book Footprints on the Moon, executive secretary of the Space Council, Dr. Edward Welsh, made it clear when he stated, “There was not very much of the idea that it was awfully important to go to the moon for its own sake.”
The national importance of Shepard’s flight becomes obvious as well. It was America’s first step toward “getting ahead” of the Soviets; it was not about leading a greater scientific quest for knowledge. And so on that May morning Shepard reclined within his Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, as he had named it, resting atop the 83-foot Redstone rocket, fueled to carry not only one American but also all of the free world into space; the little rocket was the focus of the world’s attention.
While recent tests of the Atlas and emergency escape system rockets had failed, the chances for failure of the “old reliable” Redstone seemed remote—“no greater than our crashing an airliner between here and Los Angeles in bad weather,” stated Welsh.
However, unlike the Soviets, the U.S. program was not carried out in secret. NASA’s efforts were placed before the entire world: failure, or success, would be known by all immediately. With this openness came great risks. Already the American psyche was fragile because of the appearance of being behind in the race. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that Shepard was on a suicide mission since “our rockets always blow up.”
After almost four and a half hours of waiting through electrical and weather delays, Shepard radioed to the flight controllers, “Why don’t you just fix your little problems and light this candle.” And so they did. At 9:34 a.m. Florida time, as the engines came to life, Shepard told himself, “Don’t screw up . . . you’re hauling what’s left of your country’s man-in-space program.”
From Mercury to Apollo
Finally success: a flawless flight. America had put a man in space. As intended, Shepard’s flight lit the American public’s enthusiasm to rally behind the space program. Three weeks after the flight, Kennedy stood before Congress and challenged its members to support the “landing of a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
Unfortunately for Shepard, he would soon be forced out of the race, grounded by an inner ear disease called Meniere’s Syndrome. The remainder of the Mercury and Gemini programs would continue, finally culminating with Apollo 11’s successful completion of Kennedy’s challenge. Alan Shepard remained at NASA as chief of its Astronaut Office.
Following a delicate operation, Shepard returned to flight readiness and served as Commander of Apollo 14 in 1971. He was the only one of the original Mercury 7 to walk on the moon, the fifth of only 12 to do so. His mission is nonchalantly commemorated appropriately in Shepard’s tongue-in-cheek style: on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. is his jury-rigged golf club used to hit a ball on the moon, “miles and miles and miles,” Shepard claimed.
He died in 1998. “Alan Shepard is a true American hero, a pioneer, an original,” said George W.S. Abbey (1996-2001), Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “He was part of a courageous corps of astronauts that allowed us to reach out into space and venture into the unknown. Alan Shepard gave all of us the privilege to participate in the beginnings of America's great adventure of human space exploration.”