Today marks the 51st anniversary of the first manned American space flight as part of NASA’s Project Mercury.
Initiated in 1958, Project Mercury was the nation’s program to send humans into orbit around the Earth. The previous year the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War rival, had startled the world by using an intercontinental missile to launch Sputnik, history’s first artificial satellite. This achievement marked the dawn of the space age and spurred an intensely watched space race between the two superpowers.
In 1959, NASA selected the nation’s first astronauts. After screening 110 top military test pilots, NASA chose seven men whose names would soon become known to the world: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
After nearly two years of rigorous training, Alan Shepard was chosen in a vote by his fellow Mercury astronauts to be the first American in space.
The Mercury spacecraft—Shepard’s was named Freedom 7—was barely large enough to accommodate an average-sized man. The blunt end of the cone-shaped capsule was covered by a shield designed to survive the intense heat from re-entry into the atmosphere. Shepard and the other astronauts influenced several elements of the spacecraft’s design, including the addition of a window for taking star sightings and an option to operate the vehicle manually.
The launch vehicle was a seven-story-tall Redstone rocket developed by an engineering team headed by Wernher von Braun. The Redstone was chosen for its record of reliability, but it was only powerful enough to achieve a suborbital flight.
As the world watched on television, Shepard blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 5, 1961. The flight reached a maximum speed of 5,100 miles per hour, roughly eight times the speed of sound, and a zenith of 116 miles above the Earth. With parachutes deploying, it safely splashed down in the Atlantic some 300 miles from the launch site. The New York Times declared that Shepard’s 15-minute flight “roused the country to one of its highest peaks of exultation since the end of World War II.”
Project Mercury set the country on a path that would lead to the stunning Apollo 11 moon landing eight years later on July 20, 1969, the crowning technological achievement of the 20th century.
In 2011, the Postal Service issued two stamps in recognition of advances in space exploration. The Mercury Project and MESSENGER Mission stamps were issued as Forever® stamps and are still available!