Alan Shepard, First American in Space 50 Years Ago: Five Odd Things About the Flight

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's flight in Freedom 7, the first time an American had ever been in space.

With all the wonders NASA has brought since then, it can be jarring to realize just how primitive that first flight was. It was a modern miracle at the time, of course, but now it looks almost quaint.

Five odd things about the historic flight:

5. If it took off from Houston, it wouldn't have reached New Orleans Shepard didn't go into orbit, he just was launched like a cannonball and traced a ballistic arc across the sky, landing in the Atlantic a little over 300 miles away from takeoff. That would have left him far short if he'd been hoping to make Mardi Gras from Houston.

4. NO MONKEY JOKES!!!!!! The early astronauts were very sensitive about monkey jokes. NASA had sent chimps up in capsules prior to human flight, and the Mercury 7 hated any implication that they were not pilots but rather helpless passengers like the monkeys.

Legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager had famously said, "I wouldn't want to have to sweep monkey shit off the seat before I got in the capsule."

Due to a mistake on one of the flights, a chimp mission accidentally went about 50 miles higher than Shepard's flight was scheduled to go. When pranksters put up a chart comparing the two flights, the volatile Shepard went -- yes, it has to be said -- apeshit.

3. A dramatic pee Shepard was stuck in the capsule for hours while engineers tried to make sure everything was a go. Since the flight was so brief, there was not expected to be any need for bathroom facilities.


"Gordo!" [Shepard] said, talking to Gordon Cooper, a fellow Mercury Seven astronaut and principal prelaunch communicator. "Go, Alan." "Man, I got to pee." "You what?" "You heard me. I've got to pee. I've been up here forever."

Shepard wanted to be let out but there wasn't time to reassemble the White Room. Thinking that he could be up there for hours, he told them he was going to do it in his suit. Unfortunately, there was no urine collection system and the medics were concerned he would short-circuit the leads. "Tell 'em to turn the power off!" Alan snapped. Cooper, with a chuckle in his voice, said, "Okay, Alan. Power's off. Go to it."

Shepard couldn't hold back any longer and the liquid pooled in the small of his back. His heavy undergarment soaked up the urine, and with 100 percent oxygen flowing through the suit he was soon dry. The countdown resumed.

2. Shepard never saw the Earth in color Most astronauts -- and the rest of us, via photos and video -- can't get over the blue planet in the dark that is the Earth as seen from space. Shepard never got the chance.

The windows in the capsule were situated so that he couldn't see out of them, for some reason, and the periscope he used had a graying filter to block out excessive sunlight. Shepard had flicked the filter on while on the pad and forgot to switch it back. When he tried to do it during the flight, his arm almost hit the abort button, so he thought better of it and settled for the old black-and-white view.

1. The entire flight lasted only about five minutes more than "Freebird" And not some live version, either. The album version.

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Richard Connelly
Contact: Richard Connelly