- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Fifty years to the moment Alan Shepard rocketed away, more than 100 Project Mercury workers joined former astronauts and NASA leaders at the original Redstone launch pad Thursday to celebrate the event that opened space travel to Americans.

Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, soaring 116 miles high in his Freedom 7 capsule.

The Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin beat him into space by just 23 days. Then, as now, those who helped launch Shepard took solace in the fact that “it was the first one for the free world.”

Shepard died in 1998 at age 74. NASA played the original capsule recording of his voice for the entire 15-minute flight, during the hourlong ceremony.

“Roger, liftoff, and the clock has started,” Shepard called out, the boom of the liftoff in the background.

The recording of the flight was timed precisely to the second of the 9:34 a.m. launch time.

A compilation of TV footage from that day _ the launch itself and the huge crowds on the beaches _ played on a giant screen near the stage. In the background, a replica of the Mercury Redstone rocket stood on the actual launch pad.

Former shuttle astronauts winced as Shepard reported the building G’s _ nine times the force of gravity and more _ during the initial descent.

“I went ooh, that hurts just sitting here and listening,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, told the crowd of more than 600. “He was our first in space and will forever be an icon.”

Some of the Project Mercury team had to support themselves with canes and walkers. But they stood proudly when asked to rise and be recognized by the hundreds of others gathered there at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

All three of Shepard’s daughters sat in the front row, surrounded by about 20 family members, including two of the astronaut’s great-grandchildren.

One of the daughters, Alice Wackermann _ whose birthday is May 5 _ recalled how she and her sisters and mother watched the launch on their black-and-white TV set at home in Virginia Beach, Va. Police officers and journalists jammed the family’s front yard, and not realizing the crowd was there for them, she alerted her mother, “Oh my, there’s stuff going on in the neighborhood.”

Only two of the original Mercury 7 astronauts are still alive. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, could not attend the celebrations because of a death in the family. But Scott Carpenter was on hand.

Carpenter recalled how he and fellow astronaut Walter Schirra flew the chase planes for Shepard’s launch. They lost sight of the rocket at 3,000 feet.

“When the first flight goes straight up, it’s hard to chase,” Carpenter said.

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