Today in History: The First American Goes to Space (1961)

Alan Shepard, Jr. History

For every victory the U.S. made in the quest for space knowledge and exploration during the Space Race, there seemed to be a loss to the Russians. Being first was important for the U.S., mostly as a matter of pride, but also because it was important that they prove that Communism wasn’t the ideology to embrace.

On April 12, 1961, the Russians beat the United States by putting the first man into space, and the first man into orbit. It was a huge blow to American pride, especially since NASA had been attempting to do the same for almost half a decade.

While he wasn’t the first huan, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard, Jr. became the first American in space. He named his spacecraft the Freedom 7, and his 15-and-a-half minute flight was watched by millions of Americans on TV.

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The aftermath was celebratory as you might expect. Shepard was celebrated with ticker-tape parades in cities all around the United States, and was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy.

The Space Race was just beginning at this point in time, and it would be a back and forth battle as both the Russians and the Americans strove to be first to reach the moon. It would be the United States who would be the first to land on the moon on July 20, 1969.

NASA’s mission to the moon is perhaps their most well-known achievement, but it isn’t the only one. Outside of their space-related experiments, they’ve introduced several inventions to the public at large, including memory foam, Cochlear Implants (hearing aids), and many more.

With Shepard’s first journey into the great unknown, the American public would have their first taste of success, and they would clamor for more. By the time of the moon landing, Americans used NASA’s achievements for a barometer of how successful America could be.