May 5, 2011 New York Post Robin Wallace
ON May 5, 1961, the Freedom 7 space capsule blasted off into outer space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The flight rocketed 115 miles into the atmosphere and lasted just 15 minutes, but it marked a major victory for the United States and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ( NASA.) The astronaut on board the Freedom 7, Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., had just become the first American launched into space.
Shepard flight was a symbolic triumph. Following the end of World War II in 1945, a fierce rivalry flared up between the United States and the former Soviet Union known as the Cold War: The Americans and Soviets competed to build the mightiest military, amass an arsenal of nuclear weapons, wield great influence over global affairs and send the greatest athletes to battle in the Olympics. A major front of the cold war was the race to get to space.
On this front, the United States was losing. In 1957, the Soviets had shocked the United States when it sent the world first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. In response, NASA was formed in 1958. NASA first major undertaking was the Mercury Project. Its objectives being: To see if humans can survive in space, and if so, to subject them to a longer space flight duration, to meet and dock with orbiting vehicles, and to successfully reenter the atmosphere at a predetermined destination.
In choosing a crew to take on this challenge, NASA screened hundreds of talented military pilots, subjecting them to grueling physical, mental, psychological, medical and technical testing. In April, 1959, NASA selected its first team of Astronauts, known as the Mercury 7.
In 1960, The Mercury Project first sent two chimpanzees into space, Sam in 1959 andMiss Sam in 1960. However, on April 12, 1961, the Soviets once again blindsided the United States when it sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space. Gagarin orbited the planet before returning safely to Earth. A Soviet cosmonaut had become the first human being to fly into outer space. Less than a month later, the United States sent Shepard into space, and its first manned mission was complete.
Shepard named his space capsule Freedom 7, for its patriotic reference to America, and for his fellow Mercury astronauts. While Gagarin, on his flight, orbited the Earth, Shepard flight was suborbital, meaning it did not orbit the Earth. The Soviets were still in the lead, literally flying a victory lap around the planet. The United States had to wait until February 1962 to see John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.
However, the landmark Mercury program launched the space age, which the US would quickly come to dominate. The success of Mercury led to the Apollo program, which resulted in the moon landing in 1969. The first human being to step foot on the moon was American astronaut Neil Armstrong.