Photo: Marine Corps HUS-1 helicopter from HMR-262 retrieves Freedom 7 from the Atlantic | NASA
May 5, 1961: Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space
Astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, when the Freedom 7 spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The historic launched occurred just three weeks after Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Shepard was the first human in space to control the orientation of their own craft, as Gagarin’s spaceflight was largely automated.
The suborbital mission lasted 15 minutes and 22 seconds, during which Shepard reached a maximum altitude of 116 miles. Shepard splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean, about 302 miles from his launch point at Cape Canaveral, and was recovered by the crew of the USS Champlain. Shepard would go on to command the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, becoming the oldest person to walk on the Moon at the age of 47.