If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen how I was oohing and aahing about a wonderful set of rare and never-seen photographs of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and the other Mercury astronauts released by LIFE.com in honor of the 50th anniversary Alan Shepard’s flight on May 5. Maybe LIFE saw my Tweets, too, as they contacted us, giving Universe Today permission to publish a few. Above, Shepard strides to the launchpad early on May 5 1961, with Gus Grissom close behind. Shepard reportedly joked to technicians who rode with him to the launch pad: “You should have courage and the right blood pressure” if you want to succeed as an astronaut. “And four legs … You know, they really wanted to send a dog, but they decided that would be too cruel.” In Shepard’s right hand: a portable air conditioner to cool the inside of his pressure suit before he enters the capsule.
See more below.
In this previously unpublished photo, John Glenn crouches near Shepard’s capsule, Freedom 7, prior to launch. In the book “Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard,” author Neal Thompson portrayed the fierce competitiveness between Shepard and Glenn over who would be the first astronaut in space, which sometimes bordered on the two disliking each other. But as the first flight approached, Shepard and Glenn spent a lot of time together training, and formed a bond. Glenn even put a few items in Shepard’s Freedom 7 capsule as a joke to lighten the intensity of the day, and this image shows Glenn’s excitement and joy as his fellow astronaut enters the spacecraft. LIFE photographer Ralph Morse said of NASA’s choice for who was making the first flight: “You know, I presumed, at that point, that they were saving Glenn, that having him circling the Earth for the first time would be better press for NASA. But you don’t know about these things. They had their own reasons, of course — complicated reasons, based on skills and personality and temperament — for choosing one man ahead of another.”
This previously unpublished image shows Shepard’s Redstone rocket before liftoff. “I never have been my own favorite subject,” Shepard once told LIFE, when asked how he felt about the rewards and dangers inherent in Project Mercury. “And I don’t think I’ve found anything new about myself since I’ve been in this program. We were asked to volunteer, not to become heroes. As far as I’m concerned, doing this is just a function of maturity. If you don’t use your experience, your past is wasted, and you are betraying yourself.”
This is my absolute favorite image of this set: Shepard shares a laugh with fellow astronauts Gus Grissom (right) and Deke Slayton upon his arrival at Grand Bahama Island, shortly after his successful flight and splashdown. Oh to be a fly on the wall to know what they were laughing about!
No internet, no instant messaging, no Twitter or Facebook. The Mercury astronauts and the rest of the world had to wait for the next day’s newspapers to come out to read of Alan Shepard’s heroics. “Though the U.S. still has far to go to catch up with the Russians in space,” LIFE magazine noted in its May 12, 1961 issue, “Shepard went a long way toward lifting American heads higher.”
50 years ago today, Alan Shepard blasted off on board the first flight of NASA’s Mercury program, becoming the first American in space. Shepard was the consummate astronaut, — he stayed with NASA for over 15 years, and eventually walked on the Moon. But for all his successes, Shepard was a complicated and conflicted man; even though he was in constant limelight along with all of the early NASA astronauts, his life was somewhat of an enigma, as he closely guarded his privacy and held most people – including his friends – at arm’s length.
“He was the epitome of the image that NASA had hoped to portray when they selected the first astronauts,” said Neal Thompson, author of the only Shepard biography, “Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard.” “He was a aircraft carrier pilot, a test pilot, drove fast cars, smoked cigars, drank martinis—he was stylish and cool and cocky. I’ve described him as Don Draper in a spacesuit. He represented that “Mad Men” era – cool and suave and all that.”
But, Thompson said, that was an image that Shepard worked hard to portray as well as protect, and Thompson felt there had to be more to Shepard’s story. Through years of research, Thompson found Shepard to be a much more compelling man than he ever expected.
“He wasn’t the most outgoing guy with the press and I felt like there had to be more to his story than what I had read,” Thompson told Universe Today. “There were a lot of aspects to his personality that were complicated and compelling and contradictory. He was highly competitive, but he was also a softy underneath at times. He was accused over the years of being a bit of a womanizer, and yet he was married to the same woman for 40-plus years and I think they were very devoted to each other. So there were a lot of complex aspects to his personality that were fun to explore.”
While all the other Mercury 7 astronauts had either written their own books or had books written about them, America’s first astronaut had not told his own life story, and no one had gotten close enough to tell it for him. Shepard died without ever authorizing a biography that focused on his life.
“I was really intrigued when I started researching his life that, no other biography had been written about him,” Thompson said.
The title of the book, which was first published in 2004, refers to Shepard’s impatience with NASA engineers who were making sure his Redstone rocket was ready to go. Shepard was frustrated: he knew very well he could have been the first human in space, if not for political and technical delays. But as it was, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched on an orbital flight on April 12, 1961, becoming the first man in space and scoring a huge victory for the Soviet Union in the Cold War with the US.
23 days later, Shepard sat on the launchpad, waiting inside his rocket for over 4 hours while engineers tackled one problem and then another. The wait was longer than anyone expected and Shepard ended up having to urinate inside his spacesuit, claiming otherwise his bladder would burst.
Finally, when one more problem cropped up, Shepard exclaimed, “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”
“I think that sums up his character in many ways, that one particular quote,” said Thompson. “He was a very intense guy who just wanted to get the job done and liked to move forward and not look back, and I think that reflection of that intensity of his personality is nicely summed in those few words.”
Shepard’s whole life was about competition. “Whether it was in sports as a youth, or competing among other naval aviators when he was a carrier pilot,” said Thompson, “and then it just sort of ramped up at each stage of his career, becoming a test pilot where he competed with some of the best aviators on the planet and then to be selected among this extremely elite group of Mercury 7 astronauts and then to compete against them for that first ride. But I think he thrived on that and it was fun to explore what that meant in the scope of the space program.”
Particularly intriguing to Thompson was the competitive relationship between Shepard and John Glenn, who early on were pegged as being the two astronauts who were most likely to fly first.
“As you know, Shepard was picked first and Glenn was furious about that,” Thompson said. “I think it is sort of interesting that now, historically, Glenn is more well known probably than Shepard, even though he was picked to fly third among the first astronauts. But because he has the orbital flight, Glenn’s flight is historically viewed as the bigger accomplishment.”
Shepard always kept a distance between himself and others. While he could be pulling a prank or making a joke one minute, the next he could be sullen and withdrawn or downright angry and unpleasant — which Thompson said was perhaps a way to keep the competition at bay.
But Shepard’s competitive nature is likely what made him so successful throughout his career, and in particular it was something he relied on in the mid-1960’s when he was grounded because of a disabling medical condition, Ménière’s disease, which causes severe vertigo and nausea, which is crippling for a pilot and astronaut.
“After his Mercury flight, he was selected to command the first Gemini mission, and while training for that was felled by Ménière’s disease,” Thompson said. “I think at that point, Shepard just considered hanging it up and leaving the space program and pursuing other things, like business or politics or something high profile.”
While Shepard could have anything he wanted — there were many offers he could have taken, Thompson said – he decided to stick with the program, to stay with NASA, to take on this lesser role as head of the astronaut office.
“It had to be really demoralizing for him to be the first American in space and then not be able to fly at all and to be stuck watching the other astronauts fly ahead of him. But it was always impressive to me that he did stick with it, he got his inner ear disorder cured, and fought his way back into the flight rotation and then was assigned to Apollo 14,” Thompson said.
But the disease may have saved his life from tragedy, as well. Shepard likely would have been chosen to lead Apollo 1 and was originally scheduled to command Apollo 13.
Thompson added that it says a lot about Shepard’s character that he managed to get assigned to command an Apollo mission and fly Apollo 14 so successfully.
Shepard stayed with NASA for 15 years which is longer than any of the other Mercury 7 astronauts, and longer than many astronauts today stay. “I think he really believed in the mission and believed in what he and what NASA was doing,” Thompson said.
What people might remember most about the Apollo 14 mission is Shepard hitting golf balls on the Moon.
“I think he viewed that as something that he wanted to do, maybe so that his flight could be remembered as being a little more unique than some of the others,” Thompson said. “It was a little bit of flair and maybe a sign of exuberance, punctuating his comeback and his successful flight, and he set things up so that he would only hit the golf balls at the end of the flight if everything went well. It was his kind of exclamation point tacked on to the end of Apollo 14 to say, “I did it” and here’s something fun and extra.”
Later Shepard was successful in business, becoming the first millionaire astronaut. “I think he enjoyed the rest of his life, business, traveling, playing golf, he loved his wife – he just lived a big life,” Thompson said.
Shepard died from cancer at age 74 in 1998. Tragically, his wife Louise died five weeks later from a heart attack during an airplane flight. It almost was if she couldn’t live without him.
“Shepard was almost larger than life – he always had that ‘little extra’ and he was an exceptional man at all levels,” Thompson said.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – 50 Years ago this week, Alan B. Shepard became the first American to be launched into space. Shepard blasted off on May 5, 1961 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA and the US Postal Service honored Shepard’s historic achievement today (May 4) at an Official First-Day-of-Issue dedication ceremony at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Alan Shepard was one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts – who will be collectively known for all eternity as – “The Original 7”.
The US Postal Service simultaneously released two new 44 cent Forever Stamps at today’s commemoration, which bookend two historic space achievements – Shepard’s inaugural manned spaceflight aboard the Mercury capsule and NASA’s unmanned MESSENGER mission which recently became the first probe from Earth to achieve orbit about the Planet Mercury.
Fellow Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter attended the ceremony and unveiled the stamps along with Steve Masse, United States Postal Service Vice President of Finance at the Rocket Garden at the KSC Visitor Complex.
“Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of many, many important issues, among them is the first steps from the home planet that were taken by the family of man,” said Carpenter.
Although Shepards suborbital flight aboard the one man “Freedom 7” Mercury capsule lasted barely 15½ minutes, the flight ignited America’s Moon landing effort and propelled American Astronaut Neil Armstrong to become the first human to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 during the Apollo 11 mission – one of the crowning technological achievements of the 20th Century.
The success of “Freedom 7” emboldened President John F. Kennedy to declare that America “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” just three weeks later on May 20.
“That was largely a response to Alan’s success,” Carpenter told the crowd of assembled officials, journalists and visitors. Also on hand for the stamp dedication was Shepard’s daughter Laura Shepard Churchly; Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator and former shuttle astronaut; Bob Cabana, KSC Director and former shuttle astronaut; and Jim Adams, NASA deputy director, Planetary Science.
“A decision was made not to put 44 cents on the stamp, but it is forever,” Carpenter emphasized. “It is appropriate to the time we should honor and remember Alan B Shepard and Freedom 7.”
Shepard’s tiny capsule measured just six feet by six feet, reached a maximum speed of 5,100 MPH, roughly eight times the speed of sound, and a zenith of 116 miles above the Earth. Freedom 7 was bolted atop a Redstone rocket that generated only 78,000 pounds of thrust, followed a ballistic arc and landed 300 miles down range in the ocean.
“These stamps, which will go out by the millions across this country, are a testament to the thousands of NASA men and women who shared dreams of human spaceflight and enlarging our knowledge of the universe,” said Bolden.
Shepard’s flight and MESSENGER both blasted off from launch pads quite close to one another at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station which is adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center.
On Thursday May 5, watch for my on site coverage of NASA’s special ceremony marking the 50th Anniversary of Shepard’s milestone “Freedom 7” mission – and an interview with Scott Carpenter.
Shepard’s mission came barely three weeks after Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. The bold flights of these brave Cosmonauts and Astronauts – backed by a few insightful political leaders – began the Era of Human Spaceflight. As the shuttle program winds to a close, the future of US Human Spaceflight is very uncertain.
Read my related articles about Yuri Gagarin and the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight:
Postage stamps honoring Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, and NASA’s MESSENGER probe, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, will be presented on May 4th at a public event taking place at the Aviation Heritage Park in Dayton, Ohio.
The first stamp salutes NASA’s Project Mercury, America’s first manned spaceflight program, and astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr.’s historic sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961 aboard the spacecraft Freedom 7.
The other stamp highlights NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft currently exploring the planet Mercury. It successfully established orbit around the planet on March 18, 2011, the first spacecraft ever to do so.
These two historic missions frame a remarkable fifty-year period in which the U.S. has advanced space exploration through more than 1,500 manned and unmanned flights.
Both stamps were designed by professional artist Donato Giancola of Brooklyn, NY, who based the stamp designs on NASA photos and images.
Both stamps will be issued as “Forever Stamps” for use in mailing a one-ounce letter. Regardless of when the stamps are purchased and no matter how postage prices may change, these stamps will always be equal to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce price.
Stamps are now available online at the US Postal Service store here.
50 Years ago, the dream of human spaceflight opened with the courageous blastoff of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin inside the Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961. Gagarin was the first person to orbit the Earth. Less than a month later on May 5. 1961, Astronaut Alan Shepard bravely set forth on America’s first human spaceflight – Freedom 7.
Barely three weeks afterward on May 25, 1961, these momentous events of the early Space Age led directly to Project Apollo and the historic announcement by President Kennedy that the United States “would land a man on the moon” by the end of the 1960’s.
In honor of Yuri Gagarin, NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover explored a small and highly eroded crater dubbed “Vostok Crater” in 2005 during its journey in the Meridian Planum region on the Martian surface. Along the edge of the crater, researchers commanded Opportunity to use the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT), to drill into a rock dubbed “Gagarin” on Sols 401 and 402 in March 2005.
Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004 for a planned 90 sol mission. By the time that Opportunity arrived at Vostok Crater, she had already lasted more than 4 times longer than expected and found that water existed on ancient Mars.
Opportunity is still alive today on Sol 2571, more than 28 times beyond its design lifetime !
Scientists are using the data gathered from “Gagarin Rock” and other locations explored by Opportunity to help elucidate the history of the past flow of liquid water on the red planet and determine whether the wet environmental conditions could ever have supported martian microbial life – past or present.
“The 50th anniversary of mankind’s first fledgling foray into the cosmos should serve as an important reminder of the spirit of adventure and exploration that has propelled mankind throughout history,” said Mars rover science team member James Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, in a statement. “We are a species of explorers; it is encoded into our very DNA.”
“Half a century ago Yuri Gagarin was lofted into a totally unknown, remote and hostile environment and in doing so opened up a new limitless frontier of possibilities for mankind,” Rice added. “A mere 23 days later another brave human, Alan Shepard, climbed aboard a rocket and ventured into the starry abyss. Their courage and vision continue to inspire and lead us into the unknown. Hopefully, one day in the not too distant future it will lead humanity on a voyage to Mars.”
Many people, including myself, were inspired by the Space Race to become scientists and engineers and hope that continues for the next generation of students today.
Read more about Yuri Gagarin and Opportunity in my related stories: