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1961: Shepard becomes first US astronaut

Commander Alan Shepard has been recovered from his space capsule in the Atlantic after becoming the first American in space.

Three weeks ago, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly into space.

This morning, 37-year-old Cdr Shepard of the US Navy was launched into sub-orbital flight from Cape Canaveral in Florida in a Mercury 3 capsule attached to a Redstone rocket.

He travelled 115 miles into space and landed in the Atlantic just 15 minutes later. His first words after he was picked up by a helicopter were: "Boy, what a ride!"

President Kennedy telephoned to congratulate the astronaut a few minutes after he was flown to aircraft carrier Lake Champlain.


"Oh, what a beautiful view"

Alan Shepard from space

In a veiled reference to last month's achievement by the USSR's space programme, the president said: "This is an historic milestone in our own exploration into space. But America still needs to work with the utmost speed and vigour in the further development of our space programme."

During the flight, Cdr Shepard maintained constant communication with ground control. He opened his periscope, reported on cloud cover over Florida and North Carolina and commented, "Oh, what a beautiful view."

As he re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, the experienced test pilot was subjected to 11 times the force of gravity and travelled at 5,100mph but managed to report that he was "OK".

The space capsule, which appears undamaged except for some heat scars, is being returned to Cape Canaveral for examination.

In Context
After his mission, Alan Shepard was grounded because of an inner ear infection.

During this time he was head of astronaut training and crew selection. In 1969, the year that Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon, he regained his flight status.

In a controversial move, he assigned himself to command the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission in 1971 during which he became the first - and only - person to play golf on the Moon.

He died in California at the age of 74 in 1998 after a long battle with leukaemia. President Clinton called him "one of our greatest astronauts".


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