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May 5, 1961: NASA sends the first American into space

1961: In the first manned flight of Project Mercury, Alan Shepard becomes the first American to travel into outer space. Shepard rode his Freedom 7 capsule on a 15-minute suborbital flight, reaching an altitude of 101.2 nautical miles.
1961: In the first manned flight of Project Mercury, Alan Shepard becomes the first American to travel into outer space. Shepard rode his Freedom 7 capsule on a 15-minute suborbital flight, reaching an altitude of 101.2 nautical miles. (NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

HOUSTON – As many people are busy sipping on margaritas and celebrating Cinco de Mayo, Americans have another reason to celebrate today. While May 5 marks the day Mexican army’s declared victory over France at the Battle of Puebla, it is also the same day the United States sent the first American into space.

Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. is credited as the first American to journey into space on May 5, 1961.

According to NASA, in 1959 NASA invited 110 top test pilots to volunteer for the manned space flight program. Unfortunately, Shepard was not one of the pilots invited due to a misplaced invitation. Shepard eventually became one of the seven chosen for Project Mercury-Redstone 3, a mission to determine man’s capabilities of going and returning from a space environment.

Today in 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to gaze upon the Earth from space, seeing this beautiful view of our home planet: https://go.nasa.gov/2HY6Mky

Posted by NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Saturday, May 5, 2018

With an extensive background with ships and the Navy, Shepard was selected as the prime pilot for the first mission. Originally Shepard was supposed to go into space on May 2, but the launch was postponed due to weather conditions.

On May 5, 1961, at 9:34 a.m. EST, Spacecraft No. 7 launched from the LC-5, reaching the altitude of 116.5 miles in space and landed in the Atlantic Ocean.

The mission was a success and the total duration was 15 minutes and 28 seconds long.

(5 May 1961) --- Astronaut Alan B. Shepard is seen on the deck of the USS Lake Champlain after the recovery of his...

Posted by NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Monday, March 5, 2012

Although the Soviet Union sent a person into space 23 days prior, this was a ground-breaking moment in history for our country.

Shepard retired from NASA and the Navy on August 1, 1974.

1923: Alan Shepard, the naval aviator and NASA astronaut who in 1961 became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space, is born in Derry, New Hampshire. Shepard made his historic flight into space as part of Project Mercury and returned to space a decade later, commanding the Apollo 14 mission and becoming the fifth person to walk on the moon. After leaving NASA he became a successful businessman. He died of leukemia in 1998 at the age of 74.
1923: Alan Shepard, the naval aviator and NASA astronaut who in 1961 became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space, is born in Derry, New Hampshire. Shepard made his historic flight into space as part of Project Mercury and returned to space a decade later, commanding the Apollo 14 mission and becoming the fifth person to walk on the moon. After leaving NASA he became a successful businessman. He died of leukemia in 1998 at the age of 74. (NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

He received numerous awards, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

You can learn more about Alan B. Shepard, Jr. and his mission in the video below.