05 May 2021

60 years since Alan Shepard became first American in space

On 5 May 1961, Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space, breaking two FAI records for highest altitude and greatest mass lifted to altitude for his suborbital spaceflight.

Shepard’s achievement came just 23 days after Yuri A. Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth.

The FAI archive holds the record statement issued by NASA which includes certificates of launch and return, vehicle commander’s report, radar data, flight charts and photographs of Shepard, the Mercury-Redstone launch and the capsule’s recovery in the Atlantic Ocean.


  • Altitude: 186,307km
  • Greatest mass lifted to altitude: 1 832,51kg


Shephard FAI records
Vehicle Commander Alan Shepard wearing spacesuit 1961. Image from FAI archives


Alan Shepard (born 18 Nov 1923) trained as a test pilot after working on a ship during World War 2. In 1959 he was selected as one of the seven Mercury program astronauts, from 100 test pilots who volunteered.

A Redstone Rocket launched the the capsule, which Shepard named ‘Freedom 7’. During the suborbital flight Shepard reached an altitude of 186km (115 miles) which took a total of 15 minutes.

 Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) launches from Cape Canaveral.

Landing near the Bahamas in the Atlantic Ocean, Shepard was picked up by a US Marine helicopter.


Shepard’s career also included a moon walk: 10 years after his record-breaking space mission, aged 47, Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 flight (31 Jan – 9 Feb 1971) to the lunar Far Mauro highlands, famously swinging a club at two golf balls to demonstrate lunar gravity for live television.

Images: NASA