Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. became the first American in space on 05 May 1961. His suborbital flight (116 miles into the atmosphere) lasted 15 minutes.
The Freedom 7 spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The Cold War had morphed into the space race; cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin was first, having completed a single orbit around the Earth on 12 April 1961.
President John F. Kennedy was in the White House, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated Project Mercury in 1958.
In parallel with Mercury spacecraft development, NASA selected its first group of astronauts on April 9, 1959. The group consisting of M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard, and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton called themselves the Mercury 7 astronauts. They began intensive training in the hope of becoming the first human in space. On Jan. 19, 1961, STG leader Robert R. Gilruth informed the group that Shepard would fly the first suborbital mission, Grissom the second, with Glenn serving as a back up to both of them. To the public, NASA revealed only that one of the three men would make the first flight, with the actual individual made known only close to the launch.
Three weeks later, President Kennedy committed the United States to landing on the moon before the end of the decade.
No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man¹s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.
Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.
Shepard was also the fifth man to walk on the moon; he was the first lunar golfer.