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