Science & Environment

America's first spaceman: 50 years on

This week marks the 50th anniversary of America's first manned mission to space. On 5 May 1961, a Mercury-Redstone rocket shot Alan Shepard to an altitude of 187km on a sub-orbital flight lasting under 16 minutes.

The US mission came just a few weeks after Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to fly in space - a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union.

Neal Thompson is the author of Light This Candle, a biography of the first American in space. He told BBC reporter Paul Rincon why he thinks Shepard, and his 1961 achievement, have been overlooked.

Image caption President Kennedy (L) with Shepard (R) on his return to Earth. Being second into space was a source of "lingering frustration" for Shepard

PR: Despite being America's first man in space, Alan Shepard's flight is perhaps less celebrated than other US space milestones such as John Glenn's first orbital flight. Why do you think that is?

NT: A couple of reasons: Yuri Gagarin flew first - I think that's the biggest one. I think Shepard was very frustrated by that too. Nasa had been hoping to launch his flight as early as late 1960.

But they kept postponing it - and for good reason. The Redstone rockets weren't the most reliable rockets - they had a bad habit of blowing up. So they kept delaying the scheduled flight over and over and Shepard felt that opened the window for the Russians to get there first.

Technologically, Shepard felt [the US was] ahead of the Russians and felt that we could have gone sooner. In addition to the Russians going first, they also orbited the Earth first. Shepard's flight was a great accomplishment, it was huge achievement for him to have been selected to go first [for the US], and then to have pulled off the flight almost flawlessly was very satisfying to him.

But the fact that it was a sub-orbital flight compared to Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight, combined then with John Glenn's flight the following year which had made multiple orbits of Earth - those are some of the reasons that Shepard got overlooked.

People probably remember him more for his golf shot on the Moon than being the first American in space. At the time, when the first seven US astronauts were competing for that flight, everyone wanted to be on the first one, thinking that would be the most historically relevant.

John Glenn was very frustrated that Shepard was chosen first. It's interesting that Glenn got the bigger prize by achieving the first orbital flight.

PR: Why do you think Shepard was selected for that flight? Do you think Nasa knew the first flight was likely to be overlooked, or did they feel Shepard's qualities best embodied the way they wanted to portray themselves as an agency?

NT: I think the latter is a real good description of what was at play with their selection. Clearly, they could have picked any one of the guys and, technically, they would have handled the flight the same. There wasn't a whole lot for the astronaut to do on that first flight anyway. So in terms of getting the job done, they had their pick of the best of the best.

But I do think the agency also wanted to send a message in terms of selecting who went first and I think Shepard - maybe a little bit more so than the others - had this image that Nasa possibly wanted to portray. John Glenn was a nice guy, very chummy with the press, All-American, and that was certainly an image that they cared about. But I think with Shepard, he was more the steely-eyed fighter jock, a little bit more militaristic in his bearing. They wanted the Shepard image to be the first one that people related to when they thought of the astronaut programme.

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Media captionWatch: Excerpts from Alan Shepard's flight on Freedom 7

PR: Do you think that was partly a reaction to US test pilot Chuck Yeager's description of astronauts as "spam in a can" - that they were just guinea pigs?

NT: I think they were responding in part to that - and that was a frustration for the astronauts too… They pushed for changes to the capsule to make it more of a flying vehicle, rather than just a can that they were an occupant of. I think they had some success with that. But I think that choosing Shepard was a reflection of their desire to show these astronauts were the best that America had to offer.

PR: How did Shepard later feel about the fact that Gagarin had been first into space? He was a highly competitive person - did that eat away at him?

NT: I wouldn't say it ate away at him, but I think it was a great frustration and disappointment to him. I learned in the course of the research that he wasn't one to dwell on the past and wallow in anything negative. I think he had a pretty forward-looking and upbeat attitude about a lot of things. That came into play later when he became sick and wasn't allowed to fly. He didn't wallow, he just focussed on getting well and getting back into the astronaut flight rotation.

As far as getting beaten that first time, he was disappointed and frustrated. He partially blamed the excessive concern, the "fretting", or "nitpicking" by the engineers because of that fighter jock attitude. He was the type of pilot who thought he could fly anything, even if there was something wrong with it. There was a "stick and rudder" attitude: just give me a plane - a stick and a rudder - and I'll fly it. So he was not concerned with technical glitches the way the engineers needed to be.

I don't think he was an overtly political person, but I think he felt the Soviet Union was a technologically "inferior" country. And to be beaten on that level, in such a public display… that was especially frustrating.

Image caption Shepard's sub-orbital flight in Freedom 7 lasted just under 16 minutes

PR: In 1964, Alan Shepard was diagnosed with Meniere's disease (a condition of the inner ear that affects balance) following a collapse, which temporarily grounded him as an astronaut. Had there been any indications of his condition prior to that?

NT: There were a couple of small indications. It's unclear that there was a direct connection between his years as a fighter pilot or the first couple of years of astronaut training. It's hard to say that those were to blame. There were a couple of far more subtle episodes that he experienced before the symptoms really got worse and started to affect his performance.

So much of this was new at the time that there was a lot of fretting that maybe this was something to do with the training, or being up in space. The press was doing its own speculation, because John Glenn had similar symptoms from an accident where he hit his head on the rim of a shower stall. Almost at the same time, Glenn and Shepard were experiencing these episodes of vertigo.

With Shepard, I don't think anyone determined that his condition was caused by anything professional. But I think there were some hunches it was related or that it might not have come out previously because he hadn't been pushed that far. It did finally come out during training for the Gemini missions, because they were doing more aggressive training than they had been for the Mercury programme.

To me it was fascinating to learn just how severe his illness was. He wasn't bed-ridden, but there were times when he would get out of bed, have these dizzy spells and fall to the floor. He wasn't able to figure out which way was up, he would have nausea and vomiting. It was pretty severe. At the time, it was not widely known how bad these episodes were for Shepard.

Image caption The capsule was fished out of the Atlantic Ocean by a helicopter

PR: After Shepard was diagnosed, he was given a desk job in the astronaut office, which he stayed in for more than a decade. Why did he persevere for so long in a role that - to someone like Shepard - must have seemed quite unexciting?

NT: I agree. That question - why he stayed - is one that drew me to Shepard and drove a large chunk of the book. He could have done anything, he could have gone into politics, or business - he eventually did go into business and made millions of dollars. But he could have done that right away or found something else that was a challenge, or lucrative, or high profile.

The fact he stayed with the programme, in a low profile position, it still confuses me. I attempted to answer that question in the book and I think one of the answers is that he did want to stick with it in the hope that he could reach the Moon. I think that's what all of them really wanted… I think Shepard was willing to take this smaller role, a desk job.

I think it must have been extremely hard and frustrating to be the one who couldn't fly, who was not quite babysitting the other astronauts, but was their overseer and caretaker. He was involved in some of the selections [for missions] and had to watch the others go up ahead of him.

I've always been impressed by the fact he stuck with the job and with Nasa. He didn't just phone it in, he played an important role in those years of firming up the training regimens and keeping the astronauts on task, particularly after the Apollo 1 fire.

He played a role in keeping the astronauts focused and motivated and helping them get past that tragedy. I think that's another of the reasons why I view him as someone who's been overlooked over the years: Not only was he the first American in space and the fifth man on the Moon, but between those two achievements, he dedicated himself to Nasa and stuck with it.

Neil Thompson is the author of Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard, the first biography of America's first man in space. As a journalist he has worked for the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Post Magazine.

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