Today marks the 51st anniversary of Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight making him the first American in space. Perched atop a Redstone rocket, Shepard rode his Mercury capsule, nicknamed “Freedom 7”, 303 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral and splashed down in the Bahamas. While not as spectacular as the Soviet Vostok I mission in which Yuri Gagarin actually orbited the earth before returning, the mission was critical for NASA to keep pace in the space race. Had the cautious Americans not sent up the chimpanzee Ham first to ensure the safety of their spacecraft on January 31st, they might have beaten the Russians into space. The question lingers: had they done so, would there have been a race for the moon?

The version of the Mercury spacecraft piloted by Shepard had a small porthole for viewing and a periscope that allowed the astronaut to take some pictures of earth, Later versions would have a larger viewing window and more ability for the pilot to maneuver the spacecraft. Shepard’s capsule is on display at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Below is an advanced version of the Mercury capsule that Shepard would have flown as the last of the Mercury missions. Dubbed “Freedom 7 II”, it is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. It was decided that the mission was unnecessary and NASA moved on to the Gemini program. Gordon Cooper became the last American to fly into space alone.

Below is Shepard’s spacesuit from his pioneering flight, on display at the Smithsonian National History Museum in Washington, D.C.

The NASA “meatball” patch is barely visible under the suit’s straps.

Here is a detail of the helmet and gloves.

Shepard would contract an inner ear disorder (Ménière’s disease) robbing him of the chance to command the first Gemini mission and removing him from flight status for many years. Eventually, experimental surgery cured him of this affliction and he commanded Apollo 14, becoming the only one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts to walk on the moon.

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