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Alan Shepard: Ο πρώτος Αμερικανός στο διάστημα

 Ο γελαστός αστροναύτης

Distinguished Service, and a Challenge to a Nation

Alan Shepard: First American in Space
When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Garagrin became the first man in space in April 1961, a stunned America asked, How did the Russians beat us? And more importantly: Will we ever catch up? Three weeks later, on May 5, the second question was emphatically answered when 37-year-old Alan Shepard blasted off from Cape Canaveral on his own historic flight — a feat that made the New Hampshire native the first American in space, and marked the moment the U.S. caught up to Russia in the Space Race. Here, on the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s flight, LIFE.com presents rare and never-seen photographs, the vast majority of them by LIFE’s Ralph Morse (dubbed «the 8th Mercury astronaut» by John Glenn), along with Morse’s own insights and memories of that amazing era, and those magnificent young men in their flying machines. Above: Alan Shepard dons a space suit.
One of a Kind
Six of the seven original Mercury astronauts in early 1961, shortly after three of them — Shepard, John Glenn, and Gus Grissom — were named candidates for the May 1961 space flight. (That’s Shepard, clowning, with Gordon Cooper, Donald «Deke» Slayton, Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and Walter Schirra. Grissom was away, on missile-tracking duty.) «After I made this picture,» Morse recently told LIFE.com, «I said to Shepard, ‘Alan, you should never do that sort of stuff. That’s the shot the magazine will run!’ And I was right. A few weeks later, out of all the pictures I took during that press conference, this is the photograph that appeared in LIFE.»
Letter Perfect
Unpublished, a Floridian wishes the Mercury astronauts godspeedOf the three astronauts chosen as candidates for America’s first manned space flight, only one would ultimately star in what LIFE magazine in March 1961 called the «violent, historic event … Some time this spring, either John Glenn or Virgil Grissom or Alan Shepard will crawl into a small capsule on top of a Redstone rocket and wait for the most awesome journey that man has ever taken.» A few weeks after those words appeared in print, the Soviets stunned America and the West with Gagarin’s space flight as soundly as when they launched the Sputnik satellite four years before. The unpublished Project Mercury pictures in this gallery, meanwhile — along with literally thousands of others made by Ralph Morse and other LIFE photographers — never appeared in the magazine for one simple reason: space, or rather the lack of it. There were only so many pages LIFE could devote to astronauts each week. All the other pictures that never made it into print? As excellent as they might be, there wasn’t any room for them.
Hot and Cool
Unpublished, Shepard on Grand Bahama Island, 1961. | Shepard was a Navy test pilot who had logged more than 8,000 hours flying before joining the space program. He was also, LIFE assured its readers, «a cool customer … The tallest (5′ 11″) of the astronauts, Shepard holds his wiry frame with a loose grace and dresses, even in sports clothes, with a crisp immaculateness that reflects his Naval Academy training.» For his part, Ralph Morse recalls that Shepard «was much slower at making friendships than Glenn or Carpenter or the others. But when Alan became your friend, he was a greatfriend. He was very, very smart, and personable when you got to know him. And like all of those guys, he was solid as hell. A perfect choice, really, for the first flight.»
Alan Shepard, Cape Canaveral: Safety First
Asked in May 1961 for his thoughts on the rocket that would take him into space, Shepard reportedly dead-panned, «It’s a sobering feeling to know that one’s safety is determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.» NASA announced very shortly before the original May 2nd date for the 1961 flight that Shepard — not Glenn, not Grissom — was the man elected to climb atop the massive Redstone rocket and risk his life being hurled 100-plus miles above the surface of the earth. While all seven of the Project Mercury astronauts were somewhat reluctant celebrities, Shepard was now in the heart of an unprecedented media storm — one reason why NASA had delayed for so long the announcement of who would wear the mantle of «the first American in space.»
Just Another Meal
Unpublished, the Mercury Seven dine, surrounded by reporters and photographers | «After a while,» Morse says, «these guys couldn’t go anywhere without being accosted. They all had their own bungalows at the Cape [Canaveral], but there was no real privacy, especially as the launch date approached and people all over the country were getting worked up about the flight. There were autograph seekers, reporters wanting quotes, photographers wanting pictures — it was endless. I don’t know how they handled it as well as they did. They were unflappable, those guys.»
Dressed for Success
Of all the talents he feels are necessary in order to enjoy a long, fruitful career as a photojournalist, Ralph Morse comes back again and again to one in particular: an ability to make and keep friendships. As a perfect illustration of this credo, he told LIFE.com a story about Project Mercury. «Very early on, I wanted a picture of the seven guys in their space suits. NASA said no. They wouldn’t allow it. Besides, they said, all the astronauts would never wear the suits at the same time. Now, each of these suits cost a hundred grand — big money back then — and, you know, ladies want to see what a hundred thousand dollar dress looks like. But the answer from NASA was always, No, no, no. Finally, one afternoon, Shorty Powers — a public affairs guy for NASA and, as far as I could tell, a frustrated astronaut — Shorty says to me, ‘Ralph, you know that picture you want to take? We decided to let you do it. Tonight. But you gotta get the guys together — and you gotta get the suits on them.'» Above: Mercury astronauts don space suits, 1959, Virgina. A different, far more tightly cropped version of this photo appeared in the August 1, 1960 issue of LIFE.
Suited Up
«So here it is,» Morse continues, «Thursday afternoon, and I have a few hours to get all seven of these guys together, suit them up, and make the picture. And here’s the point: I only have a few hours, but I’m going to make this picture happen because these guys are my friends. The suit men, the guys who actually help put the astronauts in their space suits, they’re my friends, too. Five of the astronauts are with me in Langley, Virginia, and they’re all up for it. But Glenn and Grissom aren’t there. Glenn is home in Arlington, ninety miles away, so I call him up. «John, I need you for a picture, badly. Can you come down tonight?» He says, «Of course.» But Gus is in St. Louis. I call him up, «Gus, I need you.» He says he can’t make it, he has plans that night, impossible.»
Magnificent Seven
«Now I really get to work on Grissom,» Morse says, laughing, rounding out his tale. «‘Gus, you’re a test pilot,’ I shout at him. ‘You’re an astronaut. Charter a plane, fly in, I take the picture, fly back. We’ll charge it to LIFE.’ And that’s what he did! Gus flies in from St. Louis, all seven of these guys get in the suits — which took about an hour, because the things were brand new. Grissom flies back to St. Louis a few hours later, and I got my picture of the seven, all of them together, in their suits. That’s friendship.» Above: Top row, from left: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; bottom, from left: Walter Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter. This picture appeared in LIFE in August 1960.
Man to Man
Unpublished, John Glenn at Mission Control prior to Alan Shepard’s May 1961 flight | «One thing that constantly impressed me,» Ralph Morse told LIFE.com, «was how utterly capable these Mercury guys were in so many different areas. It was kind of unbelievable. And they had their own language, this very technical lingo they’d developed after spending so much time together. That’s why, when someone had to talk to an astronaut during a flight, it helped if it was another astronaut. If it wasn’t, the communication might not happen quickly enough, or might get garbled — and every second counted up there.»
A Wife Always Knows
When asked in 1991 about his wife’s reaction to the nascent American space program of the 1950s, Shepard said, «I think she knew immediately that I would volunteer for it.» Above: Shepard with his wife, Louise, his niece — who lived with the family — and his two daughters, at home in Virginia Beach, 1960.
Mapping History
Unpublished, Project Mercury, mapping an orbital flight. Alan Shepard’s 1961 flight was suborbital, meaning that he did not fully orbit the Earth (as, for example, Glenn did a short time later) but did fly to space and back. | «Once in a while,» Shepard told LIFE a few weeks before his May 1961 flight, «I begin to wonder how the hell I’m going to feel [at launch], but I don’t dwell on it. It’s fine to think it’s going to be a thrill, but it’s more important to know what to do with all the knobs and levers. Fear or distress comes from the unknown. The training in this program has helped us to know. It’s a matter of confidence. I don’t know just where the confidence begins, but it’s there.»
The Shape of Things to Come
Unpublished, a party for astronauts and other Project Mercury personnel, Florida, May 1961. | While his 1961 flight proved a huge boost for NASA, Shepard did not, in fact, orbit the Earth. His was a «sub-orbital» trajectory, meaning he and his Freedom 7 craft reached a maximum altitude of around 115 miles — but did not come close to a true orbit or circling of the globe.
Cool Customer
Among the most consistently quotable of all NASA’s astronauts, Shepard reportedly joked to technicians who rode with him to the launch pad: «You should have courage and the right blood pressure» if you want to succeed as an astronaut. «And four legs … You know, they really wanted to send a dog, but they decided that would be too cruel.» Above: Shepard makes his way to the launch pad, with Gus Grissom close behind. In Shepard’s right hand: a portable air conditioner to cool the inside of his pressure suit before he enters the capsule.
The Astronaut's Arrival: May 5, 1961
Of this, one of his own all-time favorite photographs (and one, incidentally, which he did not technically shoot himself) Ralph Morse told LIFE.com: «I was the pool photographer on the pad that night for the whole world. I know they’re going to back the van in and Alan’s going to step out. I set up a camera on a little 8-inch tripod on the floor — I’m going to operate it remotely, with a cable — and I go and stand off to the left where I can get a picture of Alan walking toward me.

Everything is fine until some NASA idiot comes over and says, ‘No photographer is allowed to use two cameras.’ What? I have no time to argue, the van is arriving with Alan, so I look around for a familiar face, and there’s [astronaut Scott] Carpenter. I ask him to stand by the tripod and fire off some frames with the cable trigger when Alan comes out. I got my picture of Alan — but Scott’s the one who actually tripped the shutter on this one.»

No Room for Error
Unpublished, astronaut Deke Slayton (short sleeves) discusses details with Mission Control staff prior to Shepard’s flight | In his best-selling account of the drama that surrounded the early days of Project Mercury, The Right Stuff, author Tom Wolfe wrote that Slayton was «rugged, rather handsome, in fact, and quite intelligent, once you penetrated the tundra» of his often-grim exterior. «When the subject was flying, his expression lit up, and he radiated confidence and had all the wit and charm and insights you could ask for.»
Ride of His Life
Unpublished, the Redstone rocket on which Alan Shepard flew into space, May 5, 1961 | «I never have been my own favorite subject,» Shepard once told LIFE, when asked how he felt about the rewards and dangers inherent in Project Mercury. «And I don’t think I’ve found anything new about myself since I’ve been in this program. We were asked to volunteer, not to become heroes. As far as I’m concerned, doing this is just a function of maturity. If you don’t use your experience, your past is wasted, and you are betraying yourself.»
All Together Now
Unpublished, technicians on the launch pad prior to Shepard’s May 5 flight | «Though he was the first astronaut to go into space,» LIFE magazine observed, «Shepard was aided at every step by many knowing men, including his six colleagues. John Glenn made sure the capsule was ready for him; Gordon Coper briefed him on weather and the missile; Gus Grissom rode with him in the van and stayed with him until the hatch was closed; Scott Carpenter and Walter Schirra chased after the Redstone rocket in F-106 jets to study its flight and Donald Slayton sat in the Mercury Control Center to communicate with Shepard over the radio so he would get his instructions from a familiar voice.»
One Hero to Another
Unpublished, John Glenn crouches near Shepard’s capsule, Freedom 7, prior to launch | Less than a year after Shepard’s flight, Glenn himself would make an even bigger splash when he became the first American to orbit the Earth, circling the globe three times aboard another NASA capsule, Friendship 7. «You know,» Morse says, «I presumed, at that point, that they were saving Glenn, that having him circling the Earth for the first time would be better press for NASA. But you don’t know about these things. They had their own reasons, of course — complicated reasons, based on skills and personality and temperament — for choosing one man ahead of another.»
'Light This Candle'
Upublished, the scene inside the «block house» at launch control, May 5, 1961After he was secure in the capsule, Shepard’s flight was delayed for four hours, partly due to weather — clouds would obscure filming of the launch — and because last-minute radio-system repairs were required. Cramped, uncomfortable (at one point, unable to exit the capsule, he urinated in his flight suit), and increasingly anxious to get underway, Shepard finally uttered one of the single most famous communications in NASA history. Addressing the engineers and technicians at launch control, he asked, «Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?»
Alan Shepard, May 5, 1961: All the Way
Photo: AP Photo, May 04, 2011
Fantastic Mission
«While the whole nation watched with a gripping sense of personal and emotional involvement,» LIFE wrote of this moment, «Shepard soared off into space for the most grueling ride any American had ever taken. He did not fly as far, fast or high as Yuri Gagarrin. But he controlled the flight of his capsule — which Gagarin did not — and carried out his fantastic mission under the relentless pressure of television and worldwide publicity.» From launch to splashdown, Shepard’s flight lasted a little more than 15 minutes; as America’s first foray into human space travel, it unleashed a wave of energy, enthusiasm, and economic stimulus (NASA’s increased budget, to be precise) still felt decades later.
Safe
Relief and joy reflected in equal measure on her face, Louise Shepard takes one of the countless calls she received in the moments after her husband’s safe splashdown — this one from a local official in Virginia Beach letting her know that Alan would be named an honorary mayor.
Photo: Leonard McCombe/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Shepard Returns
«ΨΩΝΙΟ» ΤΗΝ ΕΧΕΙ ΚΑΝΕΙ, ο μόρτης!!!
Shepard on board the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain after his splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, not far from Grand Bahama Island. Helicopters from the Champlain visually tracked the capsule’s descent and were «over» Freedom 7 a mere two minutes after splashdown. «Apparently unaffected by the extreme forces of his flight,» LIFE reported, «Shepard trotted easily across the carrier deck with the manner of the fighter pilot he used to be rather than that of a national hero.»
Photo: MPI/Getty Images, May 05, 1961
Laughter on Grand Bahama
In an image that powerfully captures the at-once easy and intense bond among the Mercury Seven, Shepard laughs with fellow astronauts Gus Grissom (right) and Deke Slayton upon his arrival at Grand Bahama Island,
shortly after his successful flight and splashdown.
Photo: Paul Schutzer./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Distinguished Service, and a Challenge to a Nation
President John Kennedy pins NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal on Shepard’s chest, May 8, 1961. Two weeks later, JFK famously declared: «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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish … But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon — if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.»
Photo: Joseph Scherschel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caroline Kennedy: Little Big Fan
Caroline Kennedy watches as her dad pins a medal on Alan Shepard at the White House.
Photo: Joseph Scherschel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Read All About It
Unpublished, Mercury astronauts read of their colleague Alan Shepard’s heroics, Florida, May 1961«Though the U.S. still has far to go to catch up with the Russians in space,» LIFE magazine noted in its May 12, 1961 issue,
«Shepard went a long way toward lifting American heads higher.»
Fame and Beyond
In a remarkably relaxed portrait by Ralph Morse — testament, once again, to Morse’s unique bond with the Project Mercury astronauts — Shepard reads fan mail after returning from space. But he was hardly one to rest on his laurels, and Shepard’s NASA career included many more triumphs. In 1971, as the commander on the Apollo 14 mission, he became one of the handful of humans to walk on the moon — and (thus far) the only person in history to smuggle a golf club head aboard a space craft; attach it to a lunar-sample scoop handle; and tee off on the lunar surface. One of his drives, he later joked, traveled for «miles and miles and miles.» Alan Shepard died in 1998. He was 74.
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Photo: Ralph Morse/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
May 19, 1961,
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