Launch of Freedom 7 From Cape Canaveral Boosted Spirits Nearly 56 Years Ago
By Anna C. Heiney // March 3, 2017
TIME CAPSULE OF BREVARD COUNTY HISTORY
ABOVE VIDEO: The flight of “Freedom 7” boosted spirits throughout the country at a time when the U.S. appeared to be faltering in the quest for a viable space program.
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – On the morning of May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard crawled into the cramped Mercury capsule, “Freedom 7,” at Launch Complex 5 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The slender, 82-foot-tall Mercury-Redstone rocket rose from the launch pad at 9:34 a.m. EST, sending Shepard on a remarkably successful, 15-minute suborbital flight.
But more than that, it kick-started America’s future as a spacefaring nation.
The flight of “Freedom 7” boosted spirits throughout the country at a time when the U.S. appeared to be faltering in the quest for a viable space program. Just weeks before, on April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space, orbiting the Earth for 108 minutes in the Vostok 1 spacecraft.
A U.S. Navy test pilot, Shepard was one of the first astronauts selected by NASA. The “Mercury Seven” astronauts — M. Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, Shepard, John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom Jr., Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton — were introduced to the nation in April 1959. NASA kept the identity of the first astronaut to fly a secret until word of Shepard’s command got out just days before the launch.
After ignition, Shepard reached up to start the mission clock. The vehicle experienced some vibration about a minute and a half into flight when it pierced the area of peak aerodynamic pressure, but Shepard enjoyed a smoother ride as the Redstone pushed skyward.
Once the Mercury spacecraft separated from the rocket, the capsule turned, with its heat shield facing forward. During the short flight, Shepard took in the amazing view and experimented with the spacecraft’s controls.
“It was an intense countdown. Everybody had their job. There was no joking around,” said former Chief Test Conductor Bob Moser. “But we enjoyed it, and it worked. Congratulations to all of us. We were a great team.”
The flight was significant not only because it displayed bravery and technological progress, but also because it played out before journalists and the public. For the first time, the world was able to share in the tension and excitement as the historic event unfolded on television in real time.
“Freedom 7” was only the beginning of Shepard’s spaceflight career. He went on to serve as chief of the Astronaut Office after his first flight. In 1971, he commanded the Apollo 14 mission, landing along with Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell in the Fra Mauro region originally intended as Apollo 13’s target while Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa orbited overhead.