May 5, 2011 --
Three weeks after the world marked 50 years since Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel in space, the United States is honoring the American who followed him, Alan Shepard. Shepard was a 37-year-old naval pilot whose trip into space on May 5, 1961 aboard the Mercury 3 spacecraft made him a celebrated American hero. His 15-minute suborbital flight was much shorter than Gagarin's 108-minute journey in orbit, but provided a patriotic lift to America's efforts to explore outer space after losing to Cold War rival Russia in the race to be first.
Out of the seven original Mercury astronauts, shown here, three of them were selected as candidates for the first manned U.S. spaceflight: John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Shepard. As soon as Shepard was announced as the man selected shortly before the historic flight, the American public became captivated with him, as well as the other astronauts. Although his colleagues weren't there with him for that first flight, they were critical to the mission's success every step along the way.
The launch of Mercury's Freedom 7 mission was initially supposed to take place in March 1961 but was postponed due to technical problems. President John F. Kennedy feared the negative fallout that any failure might bring, particularly as the flight was broadcast on live television less than three weeks after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
On the day of the launch, Shepard's flight was actually delayed due to weather conditions and last-minute repairs. "Why don't you fix your little problem and light this candle?" Shepard asked launch control.
Shepard's successful flight created a wave of interest and enthusiasm in the space program and NASA reaped the benefits of a successful mission. Although the United States still needed to catch up to the Russians, we then certainly became a contender in the space race.
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Although the success of Shepard's flight wasn't as celebrated as Gagarin's achievement, it did convince Kennedy to set a course toward a major milestone in the space race: the moon. "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth," Kennedy announced in a joint session of Congress. By the end of the decade, that goal would be achieved. Although Neil Armstrong had the honor of being the first man on the moon, Shepard would eventually get his chance to visit the lunar surface (and become the first man to play golf on the moon) as commander of the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. Shepard died in 1998 at the age of 74.
Explore more rare and never-before-seen photos of this historic event and learn more about the photographer, Ralph Morse, who was there for it all at LIFE.com