The First American in Space
If not for a chimp named Ham and a minor electrical relay, Alan Shepard would have gone down in history not as the first American in space, but as the first human in space.
On January 31, 1961, a test of the Redstone booster and a Mercury spacecraft with Ham aboard went awry. The rocket sent the spacecraft much further than planned, the spaceship filled with water, and Ham nearly drowned before he was rescued.
The problem was quickly traced to the malfunction of a minor electrical relay, an easy fix. Shepard was ready to fly on the next mission, but Werner Von Braun insisted upon one more test before putting a pilot aboard. The test went perfectly on March 24, however, before Shepard could fly, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. It was a tough blow for the ultra-competitive Shepard.
Born on November 18, 1923, in East Derry, NH to Lt. Col. Alan B. Shepard, Sr. and his wife Renza, Alan was destined for a military career. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1944 and served in the Pacific during the final year of World War II.
Shepard earned his naval aviator wings in 1947. He served with fighter squadrons around the world, attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland, and logged more than 8,000 hours of flying time, including 3,700 hours in jets.
In 1959, Shepard was one of 110 test pilots invited by NASA to volunteer for the Mercury program. Following a series of rigorous tests, he was selected to be part of the original seven Mercury astronauts. Based on his superior performance during training, Shepard was chosen for the first flight.
He got his chance three weeks after Gagarin flew. On May 5, 1961, a Redstone rocket launched his Freedom 7 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. The Redstone didn’t have enough power to send him into orbit, so Shepard flew a 15-minute suborbital flight that soared up to 116 miles and landed 302 miles out in the ocean. The flight went flawlessly.
Shepard became a national hero. President John F. Kennedy invited him to the White House, where the Commander-in-Chief presented him with the Distinguished Service Medal. Encouraged by the success of the flight, Kennedy later proposed that America land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Shepard was assigned to command the first Gemini flight in 1965. However, he began to suffer dizziness and was diagnosed with Ménière's disease, an inner ear disorder that threw off his balance. The condition was incurable at the time, so Shepard was grounded and served as chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office.
In 1969, Shepard had surgery to correct the problem. He got himself reinstated as an astronaut and served as commander of the Apollo 14 mission. He and Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon in February 1971, nearly a decade after his first spaceflight.
Shepard retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy as a rear admiral in 1974, and he went on to a career as a successful businessman. He died of leukemia on July 21, 1998 in Pebble Beach, Calif. His wife of 53 years, Louise, died five weeks later. Their ashes were spread together over Stillwater Cove in front of their oceanside home.
Official NASA biography: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/shepard-alan.html
NASA Mercury program page: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mercury/index.html