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May 1961: Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space

The Engineer was unimpressed by the technology behind America's first manned space mission

In the early days of the space race, the US was forever playing catch-up with the considerably more technologically advanced Soviet effort.

And when, on May 5th 1961, commander Alan Shepard became the first American in space, The Engineer was relatively underwhelmed by the technical significance of the achievement.

In comparison with the around-the-word space flight by Soviet “cosmonaut” Yury Gagarin the fifteen-minute flight by “astronaut” Shepard some 115 miles into space and 290 miles downrange of the launching pad was a modest and belated jump into space,” it reported.


The article goes on to list all the ways in which the US effort didn’t measure up to the Soviet achievement: “His launching rocket had only one-tenth the power of the Soviet missile, and his capsule was one-fifth as heavy. The flight was only one-sixth as long in time and about one-ninetieth in distance.”

The publication stopped short of calling the launch a publicity stunt, although does note that when Wernher Von Braun (the German rocket scientist who relocated to the US after World War II) had proposed a similar mission just a couple of years earlier it had been shot down for precisely that reason.

Nevertheless, the article suggests that the chief impact of the mission was emotional and political, not scientific. “Psychologically, it is obvious that no American space shot has so captured and fired the public imagination as did the fifteen-minute flight of Commander Shepard,” it wrote. “To American officials,” it added, “the basic significance of the “Mercury” flight was that the US had at least taken the first step toward manned exploration and military exploitation of space.”

Even here, though, The Engineer’s praise was qualified, with the report suggesting that the “unintended significance [of the mission] was to provide a further demonstration that the US was several years behind the Soviet Union.”

Looking ahead, the article suggests that the future of the US manned space program is threatened by indecision and concerns over the cost of such an undertaking, and asks whether instrumented vehicles, rather than manned missions, might not be the most effective way of acquiring information from space.

Alan Shepard flew into space on May 5th 1961 aboard a Mercury spacecraft. The tiny capsule was launched by a Redstone missile (America’s first ballistic missile, and a direct descendent of the German V2 rocket developed by Von Braun during the second world war). Shepard flew 116 miles high before returning without entering orbit.  Of the remaining five project mercury flights, four did circle the Earth.  Shepard subsequently took part in the Apollo 14 mission and landed on the moon on Feb 15th 1971 (becoming the first person to hit a golf ball on its surface).