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Friday, May 6, 2011

Fifty Years Ago: Freedom 7 Launches First American in Space!

Freedom 7 lifts off of Pad 5.
Congratulations, America, you've had astronauts in space for fifty years!

By Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator

On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard donned his spacesuit for a second attempt at launching into a suborbital flight over the Atlantic Ocean. Once placed in his spacecraft, there was another long hold while NASA worked to clear the flight for blast off. The long wait was excruciating for a man who'd had perhaps too many cups of coffee before putting on the suit. After all, the flight was only supposed to last 15 minutes. Finally the GO was given, the countdown resumed, and the rocket blasted off. Many thousands of onlookers watched from the roads around Cape Canaveral, and Americans and people around the world watched on television. The highest point of the launch reached an altitude of 116 miles. During the flight, Shepard was able to test the attitude controls and make observations of Earth. Coming back through re-entry, Shepard had to endure over 11 G's of force as the capsule plunged to Earth. The parachutes deployed, and the craft landed in the ocean near the Bahamas islands. The US Navy was ready to pick up Shepard and the capsule. Later inspection showed the craft is in remarkably good shape and actually could have been used again. Today, the capsule is on display at the Naval Academy. Shepard later was awarded the Distinguished Cross by President John F. Kennedy at the White House.

Suit preparation.

Entering the Cleanroom.

Preparing to board.

View of Shepard in the capsule.

Dr. Von Braun (left) and Gordon Cooper (CAPCOM) in the launch blockhouse at LC-5.
As Capsule Communicator, Cooper had direct communications link to Shepard.

Blast Off! Freedom 7 is on its way!

Shepard during the flight.

View from the capsule.

Carrier USS Lake Champlain awaiting splashdown.

SHepard hoisted aboard the rescue helicopter. Capsule below.

2nd Helicopter recovers the capsule.

Shepard on deck of the carrier.

During the quick voyage back to the Cape.

Huntsville, Alabama celebrates. The rockets were built in Huntsville.

White House celebration. Shepard receives the Distinguished Cross from President Kennedy.

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