How Alan Shepard Became First American in Space
The Mercury Seven astronauts were America’s space pioneers. Fearless aviators with distinguished military service records, these men were selected from over 500 applicants for their engineering know-how, their physical capabilities, cognitive abilities, and sheer guts. But when it came time to select which of these seven would be the first to go into space, the process became more complicated.
NASA presented the Mercury astronauts to the public as a team in April 1959, and that was the image that was sold to and accepted by the American public. The astronauts - Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald "Deke" Slayton – and their wives took part in many carefully orchestrated public appearances and media interviews. They were portrayed as a group of men who worked together, trained together, and were all selflessly given to the cause of the American space program.
This was all true for the most part. The Mercury men were often in agreement when it came to conferring with NASA scientists and engineers about the upcoming manned missions. Their combined voice helped broaden their role from being mere test pilots in space to integral parts of the program. Privately, though, when it came to wanting to be the first man to rocket into the unknown, it was every man for himself.
There were many people in public and government circles who believed that John Glenn would be, even should be, the first astronaut to go up. Glenn was in complete agreement with this view.
Glenn took it upon himself to be the lead spokesman for the group. He was media savvy, telegenic, and symbolic of the patriotic, upstanding citizen that people would expect of a space pioneer. He was, as some of his fellow astronauts derisively put it, squeaky clean. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t carouse, or take part in any afterhours shenanigans like some of the other Mercury astronauts. Glenn voiced his disapproval of his comrades’ behavior, and as expected, they weren’t too fond of him either.
Despite how they spent their time off, all the Mercury astronauts were thoroughly dedicated to their work. Shepard, in particular, made a concentrated effort to meet the physical requirements of being the first man in space. He quit smoking, dieted to keep his weight under the 180-pound limit, and adopted much of Glenn’s physical fitness routine. He didn’t give up his cocktails, though.
Shepard, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, held the highest military rank among the seven astronauts. He had a great reputation as a test pilot, and he was also the only Mercury astronaut with an advanced degree.
When the time finally came to choose who would fly the first mission, Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Space Task Group that ran Project Mercury, had the final say. He carefully weighed how the astronauts had performed during training and the results of multitudes of technical, engineering, and even psychological tests.
Gilruth also wanted input from the astronauts themselves. He instructed each of them to write down a name of someone other than themselves that they would like to see fly the first mission. On Jan. 19, 1961, he announced to the group that Shepard would fly the first mission. Grissom would follow, then Glenn would be third.
All the astronauts were surprised, and six of them were remarkably disappointed, but none more than Glenn. He urged Gilruth to change his mind, and when that went nowhere he appealed to NASA chief James Webb and fared no better.
Shepard was going to be the first American in space, and that was that.
Alan Shepard came very close to being the first human in space. He was originally scheduled to go up on March 6, 1961, but the flight was postponed due to mechanical issues. On April 12, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, giving the Soviet Union a big lead in the space race.
Shepard finally got his chance to rescue American pride on May 5, 1961, taking the Freedom 7 craft, which he named, into space for 15 minutes, 28 seconds. It was a short stint, but it put Shepard in the history books and demonstrated to the world that America was serious about the conquest of space.
After Project Mercury, Shepard served as Chief of the Astronaut Office, overseeing astronaut training and activities during Project Gemini. He also was Commander of Apollo 14, and holds the record for the longest vehicular travel on the lunar surface at nine hours. He logged at total of 216 hours, 57 minutes in space during his career.
Alan Shepard died in 1998.