May 5, 1961 – Alan Shepard, in his Freedom 7 capsule, was launched from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 5 as the first U.S. man in space as part of the Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) mission.
MR-3 was the first manned mission of the Mercury program. This first U.S. journey into space was a short sub-orbital flight that took Shepard to an altitude of 116 miles, with a maximum speed of 5,180 miles per hour.
The first flights of the Mercury program were to ensure that NASA and the Astronauts had the technology to operate and survive in space. The ultimate goal of Mercury was to place an Astronaut into orbit.
Shepard’s flight came just weeks after Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the world’s first man in space. Shepard eventually flew into space again as the commander of Apollo 14 (redeeming the landing site of the ill-fated Apollo 13), and he became the fifth man to walk on the Moon (and the first to place golf on another world).
Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone flight lasted only 15 1/2 minutes, after which he splashed down and was picked up in the Atlantic by the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain, 300 miles East of the Cape Canaveral launch site. Gus Grissom would make a similar flight several months later.
Subsequent flights of the Mercury program would involve placing the capsule into Earth orbit, and that would require a much more powerful rocket – Atlas.