On this day in 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. muttered to himself, "Don't fuck up, Shepard...", huddled into the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, and lifted off to become the first American to reach space. These are the photographs from the historic suborbital flight.

Shepard reported observing the outlines of the west coast of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida's Lake Okeechobee. Photo credit: NASA

"On the periscope . . . . What a beautiful view. Cloud cover over Florida - three to four tenths near the eastern coast. Obscured up to Hatteras . . . I can see Okeechobee. Identify Andros Island. Identify the reefs."

Alan Shepard and John Glen enjoy breakfast before Shepard's launch. Photo credit: NASA

Pre-flight medical checks. Photo credit: NASA/NASA

Getting assistance pulling on the pressure suit. Photo credit: NASA

Fully-dressed in the very shiny pressure suit. Photo credit: NASA

Communications check, then final everything-else check, before flight. Photo credit: NASA/NASA

Peeking into the capsule prior to launch. Notice the handy "Remove before flight" warning banner. Photo credit: NASA

Shepard shakes hands with Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom while John H. Glenn Jr. looks on (white cap, center background). It's easy to forget that the start of every mission could be a tragic goodbye. Photo credit: NASA

Astronaut runway-model approaching the capsule, and finally ingress into the cramped Mercury capsule. Photo credit: NASA/NASA


After climbing aboard, Shepard was stuck in the capsule for more than four hours as NASA dealt with delays. An exasperated Shepard urged Mission Control:

"I've been in here more than three hours. I'm a hell of a lot cooler than you guys. Why don't you just fix your little problem and light this candle?"

On May 5, 1961, the Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) launched from Cape Canaveral on a suborbital mission on America's first human-crewed spaceflight. Shepard reached an altitude of over 116 miles in the Mercury capsule, and a maximum speed of 5,134 miles per hour, before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo credit: NASA

One helicopter each was used to to recover the astronaut and the capsule after splashdown. Photo credit: NASA.

Shepard being hauled aboard the recovery helicopter. Click here for more photographs in this sequence. Photo credit: NASA

Shepard and the Freedom Mercury capsule on the deck of the USS Lake Champlain. Photo credit: NASA

"…I didn't really feel the flight was a success until the recovery had been successfully completed. It's not the fall that hurts; it's the sudden stop."

Shepard with a well-earned strut and cocky grin aboard the Navy Carrier Champlain. Photo credit: NASA/NASA

Shepard joking with his doctors during a post-flight medical check. Photo credit: NASA

Completing a postflight inspection of the Mercury capsule that carried him to space. Photo credit: NASA

Shepard is greeted by Grissom upon his arrival at Grand Bahamas Island. The two of them would shortly join Donald Slayton for a press conference. Photo credit: NASA


Shepard's flight was originally scheduled for earlier in the year, but was postponed. The delays meant that the first man in space was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, achieving a full orbit during a flight the month earlier on April 12, 1961. Shepard later went on to work as a coordinator in the astronaut program, and golfed on the moon during Apollo 14.

Learn more about the development of rockets, and the early (and ongoing!) deep space communication network. Think you know your space history? Try the astronaut-themed skin of the 2048 game.