I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA
Special English program People in America. Each week we tell about someone important in the history of the United
States. This week we tell about astronaut Alan Shepard, who was
the first American to fly in space.
MISSION CONTROL: "Three,
two, one, zero...liftoff!"
SHEPARD: "Roger, liftoff and the
clock has started."
The clock has started. With those words, Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into
space. He was in a small spacecraft called Freedom
Seven. It was on top of a huge rocket traveling at more than eight
thousand kilometers an hour.
Fifteen minutes later, Freedom
Seven came down in the Atlantic Ocean. Alan Shepard was a national hero. He had won an important victory for the United
States. The date was May fifth, nineteen sixty-one. The United States and the Soviet Union were in a tense competition for world
influence. And this competition was reaching even into the cold
darkness of space.
In nineteen fifty-seven, the
Soviet Union launched the first electronic satellite, Sputnik
One. The United States successfully launched its first
spacecraft less than four months later. Now the two sides were racing to see who could launch the first human space traveler.
On April twelfth, nineteen
sixty-one, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew in space for one
hundred eight minutes. He circled the Earth once. The Soviets again were winning the
"space race," but not for long. Three weeks later the United States also put
a man into space. He was a thirty-seven-year-old officer in
the Navy -- Alan Shepard.
Alan Bartlett Shepard, Junior,
was born on November eighteenth, nineteen twenty-three in East
Derry, New Hampshire. He graduated from the United States
Naval Academy in nineteen forty-four. He married soon after his graduation. Then he served for a short time on a
destroyer in the Pacific during World War Two.
In nineteen forty-seven, Alan
Shepard became a pilot in the Navy. Later he became a test
pilot. The life of a test pilot can be very dangerous. It helped prepare Alan Shepard for an even greater danger in the future.
The successes that the Soviet
Union had with its Sputnik program caused the United States to
speed up its plans for a space program.
The Americans decided to launch a satellite as soon as possible. The first attempt failed. The rocket exploded during launch.
Support was growing, in Congress
and among scientists, for a United States civilian space
agency. Soon, Congress passed a bill creating NASA -- the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. President Eisenhower signed the bill into
law. NASA's job was to be scientific
space exploration. Its major goal was sending the first
Americans into space.
Within three months, the program
had a name: Project Mercury. Mercury was the speedy messenger
of the Greek gods. While engineers built the spacecraft,
NASA looked for men to fly them.
NASA wanted military test pilots
because they test fly new planes. Test pilots are trained to think quickly in
dangerous situations. On April seventh, nineteen fifty-nine, the
space agency announced the seven
Mercury astronauts. They would be the
first American space travelers. Alan
Shepard was one. The others were Scott Carpenter,
Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra and
Nine months after the project
started, NASA made its first test flight of the Mercury spacecraft
from Cape Canaveral, Florida. In the next two years, many
other tests followed, all without astronauts.
The final test flight was at the
end of January, nineteen sixty-one. It
carried a chimpanzee named Ham on a seven-hundred-kilometer flight
over the Atlantic Ocean. Several problems developed. But Ham survived the launch and the landing in the ocean. Later, Alan Shepard often was asked how he
became the first human American to fly
in space. "They ran out of monkeys," he joked.
There were some concerns about
the safety of the huge Redstone rocket that was to carry the
spacecraft. The launch had been delayed several times while more
tests were done. By the time the rocket was ready for launch,
Yuri Gagarin had already gone into space for the Soviet
The choice of Alan Shepard to be
the first American to fly in space was announced just a few
days before the launch. Flights planned for May second and May fourth
had to be halted because of bad weather.
On May fifth, nineteen
sixty-one, a Friday, Alan Shepard struggled once again into his
Mercury capsule. The vehicle was named Freedom Seven. There was almost no room to move. Shepard waited inside for four hours. Weather was partly the cause of the
delay. There were clouds that would
prevent filming the launch. Also some
last-minute repairs had to be made to his radio.
Shepard was tired of
waiting. So he told the ground crew to hurry to solve the problems and
fire the rocket. Finally, they did.
The rocket slowly began
climbing. Millions of radio listeners heard a voice from the Cape
Canaveral control room say: "This is it, Alan Shepard, there's no
turning back. Good luck from all of us here at the Cape."
The rocket rose higher and
higher. For five minutes, Alan Shepard felt the weightlessness of
space. He felt himself floating. Freedom Seven flew one hundred
eighty-five kilometers high. Then it
re-entered the atmosphere and the spacecraft slowed. The fifteen-minute flight ended with
a soft splash into the ocean about five hundred kilometers
from Cape Canaveral.
Alan Shepard reported:
"Everything is A-Okay." A
helicopter pulled him from the spacecraft
and carried him to a waiting ship.
The flight was a complete
success. Three weeks later, President John F. Kennedy declared a new
goal for the United States. He called for "landing a man
on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of
the nineteen sixties.
In July of nineteen sixty-nine
that goal came true. Alan Shepard was
not on that first Apollo moon flight.
In fact, he almost never made it to the moon. He developed a disorder in his inner-ear. It kept him from spaceflight for
a number of years. Finally, an operation cured his
problem. NASA named Shepard to command Apollo Fourteen. The flight was launched at the end of
January, nineteen seventy-one. Stuart
Roosa and Edgar Mitchell were the other members of the crew.
Roosa orbited the moon while
Shepard and Mitchell landed on the surface. They collected rocks and soil. Shepard also did something else. He played golf. He hit two small golf balls. It was not easy. Shepard was dressed in a big spacesuit. He described his difficulty to
Mission Control in Houston.
When Shepard did hit the golf
balls, they traveled "for miles and miles," as he reported,
because the gravity on the moon is one-sixth of the gravity on
The only humans to walk on the moon
were in the Apollo space flight program. Twelve American astronauts walked on the
moon between nineteen sixty-nine and
nineteen seventy-two. Alan Shepard was the fifth one.
In nineteen seventy-four, he
retired from NASA and the Navy. Shepard became chairman of a
building company in Houston, Texas. Later he began his own company,
called Seven Fourteen Enterprises. It was named for his flights on Freedom
Seven and Apollo Fourteen.
He also wrote a book with
astronaut Deke Slayton about his experiences. The book is called "Moon
Shot." And he led a group raising college money for
science and engineering students.
Alan Shepard died on July
twenty-first, nineteen ninety-eight after a two-year fight with the
blood disease leukemia. He was seventy-four years old. He had been married to his wife, Louise, for fifty-three years.
Alan Shepard was the first
American to fly in space. He rode into the sky on rocket fuel and
the hopes and dreams of a nation. He will always be remembered as
an American hero because of those fifteen minutes in space.
This Special English program was
written by Avi Arditti and produced by Lawan Davis. This is Shirley Griffith.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the
Voice of America.