Friday, May 5, 2023

Alan B. Shepard: First U.S. Astronaut in Space

"It was really exciting!"

When I was a little one of five or six years of age my mother told me the story of an important event from just a few years earlier. It was the United States of America's first manned spaceflight, and the astronaut's name was Alan Shepard. Everyone had gathered around the television to witness an important part of human history.

This was the first time they were able to see a manned rocket launch. The Soviets had not broadcast to the world, or even its own citizens, the lift-off of Vostok 1 three weeks earlier, and only after Yuri Gagarin returned safely to Earth from his orbital flight did they announce this stellar and humanity-changing feat. The name of the hero cosmonaut then travelled around the globe.

Citizens of the Earth could not be made to feel as participants in a great adventure until the National Aeronautics and Space Administration got to show its stuff.

Mercury-Redstone 3 ("Freedom 7") was to be a suborbital mission: Shepard's spacecraft would follow a planned ballistic trajectory. A big arc. The Mercury capsule would be shot into space, then float at high speed for some time before Earth's gravity initiated its re-entry.

One interesting element of the mission was that, unlike Gagarin's trip, which was fully automated, Shepard would take some control of his spacecraft. While up there, free from our planet's atmosphere, he manually operated the attitude control system in order to test Freedom 7's pitch, roll, and yaw capabilities.

The fifteen-minute voyage was a great technical success: The capsule went 101 miles up and flew 263 miles "downrange". The splashdown took place in the Atlantic Ocean. Shepard and Freedom 7 were recovered by waiting U.S. Navy vessels. (John Glenn's orbital flight would not happen for ten more months.)

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr was chosen to pilot MR-3 some months earlier by Project Mercury head Robert Gilruth. Competition was fierce amongst the program's seven astronauts. Not only were these men skilled test pilots ― as were all U.S. astronauts in the earliest days of space flight ― but they were equipped with the latest in personality types: Gus Grissom, for instance, who would become the second American in space, did not say much minute-to-minute during training, but when he made it known he was about to whisper something to his fellow astronauts they would shut up, lean forward, and wait for the expected words of profundity.

Shepard, on the other hand, was more gregarious by nature. He not only spoke a more regular beat, when he had something important to relate you'd better be listening, and if you didn't take your work seriously or were at any time sloppy in your training, at least from his perspective, you got it.

They were of a special breed: Shepard, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton (who was grounded for medical reasons).

I know way too much about this whole subject. Before I go on any further I'm going to execute a deorbit burn. (See?)

But first:

On May 5th, 1961, sixty-two years ago today, NASA's star astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, became a trailblazer. The world watched as his Redstone rocket sat on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral:

"... light this candle!"

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