America’s First Manned Flight
The United States took its first small step toward the Moon on May 5, 1961. On that occasion, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space as he rode his cramped Mercury capsule to an altitude of 116 before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean 302 miles from the Cape Canaveral launch pad.
Although Shepard’s flight was brief – about fifteen minutes – it represented a major technical and political breakthrough for the American space program. America needed a breakthrough to keep pace with the Soviet space program. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly in space on April 12, 1961, completing one full Earth orbit.
In the meantime, the American program was floundering. Just ten days before Shepard’s flight an unmanned Mercury-Atlas vehicle was destroyed by ground controllers when it veered off course. With Gagarin’s triumphant orbital mission, the United States was forced to play catch-up once again.
NASA chose Shepard, a thirty-seven-year-old Navy Lieutenant Commander to make the first suborbital flight. His Freedom 7 spacecraft was lofted into space by a Redstone rocket booster. The Redstone ignited at 9.34 a.m. on May 5, 1961, and by 9.50, Shepard was bobbing atop the Atlantic waiting for the recovery ship USS Lake Champlain.
Shepard suffered no ill effects from his brief exposure to the space environment, setting the stage for longer orbital flights for years to come. More important, his mission gave President Kennedy John F. Kennedy the confidence to set a tough goal for the US space program. On May 25, the same year, Kennedy committed the United States to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Science Fiction is not just about the future of space ships travelling to other planets, it is fiction based on science and I am using science as my basis for my fiction, but it's the science of prehistory - palaeontology and archaeology - rather than astronomy or physics (Jean M. Auel). Illustration: © Megan Jorgensen