The Column

Friday, May 6, 2011

From suborbital lob, manned space flight program grew

It was 50 years ago this week that America's version of the manned space program really began.

On May 5, 1921, 37-year-old Alan Shepard caught a ride on a Redstone rocket and traveling about 300 miles in a Mercury capsule with about the cabin space of a phone booth.

According to Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, he spent that 15-minute suborbital flight lying in a puddle of his own pee, as urine-recovery systems were not worked into the space suits just yet.

But this flight was a short answer to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first orbital flight from three weeks ago, and proved a few things. Like the U.S. had the stuff to send people into space. Like our rockets could lift off without blowing up first.

Shepard was later grounded due to an inner-ear problem but was reactivated several years later, in time to command Apollo 14 in 1971. Of the original seven astronauts, Shepard was the only one to walk on the Moon. He died in 1998.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the first flight, The Atlantic ran an article with a series of previously-unreleased photos. Check it out.