Building On the Past: Mercury-Redstone and the Legacy of Alan Shepard

Mercury-Redstone side by side

A Navy crewman-turned-astronaut, Alan Shepard was the first American to achieve spaceflight. Shepard’s mission aboard Freedom 7 was the direct result of research and testing done by thousands of people. His short flight helped NASA researchers study the effect of weightlessness and re-entry on the human body.

By the time Shepard was piloting the Freedom 7 capsule, he was already an accomplished crewman and test pilot for the Navy, serving aboard the destroyer Cogswell during World War II. In 1958, Shepard was selected among 110 test pilots as prospective astronauts. These men would become the first Americans in space as part of Project Mercury. A Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket carried the iconic capsule and astronaut into space on May 5th, 1961 at roughly 5,000 mph (8,000 km/h).  

Although he was removed from flight duty in 1963 after being diagnosed with Meniere’s Syndrome (a kind of vertigo), he was eventually treated and became the commander of Apollo 14 in 1971. This successful mission to the moon featured a unique moment when Shepard revealed to NASA that he had smuggled a collapsable 6-iron golf club and two golf balls on the spacecraft, with which he proceeded to take two shots on the surface of the moon. Shepard’s golf club is currently displayed at the United States Golf Association Museum in Far Hills, New Jersey.

Shepard’s space career, which began with the Mercury-Redstone, ended with the massive Saturn V rocket. Shepard stayed on with NASA as the Chief of the Astronaut Office until his retirement in August 1974.

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