- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

America was in a sad state when dawn broke on the morning of May 5, 1961. Barely two weeks before that day, the nations new president, John Kennedy, had sent 114 Cuban patriots to their deaths in a failed, U.S.-backed coup against Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs. On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 became the first human to orbit the Earth, crowning the Soviet Unions seemingly insurmountable lead in space technology. The United States hadnt experienced as dark a shadow on its national honor since Pearl Harbor was attacked 20 years before.
But things were about to change. Before the sun came up over the Florida coast on that Friday morning former Navy test pilot Alan B. Shepard Jr. climbed into the cramped Mercury spacecraft called Freedom 7 and would soon become the first American to travel into space. His flight took just 15 minutes and 28 seconds and he traveled only 302 miles from the launch pad but, in a very important sense, he carried his nation into the sky.
After Sputnik 1 (the worlds first man-made satellite) in October 1957, and the launch a month later of the first living being a dog named Laika aboard Sputnik 2 many in the United States dreaded going to sleep each night "under a communist moon," as then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson warned. The nonexistent, but much-feared missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union had been a pivotal issue in the 1960 presidential election. Shepards flight helped heal that trauma. People around the world began once again to believe in the promise that freedom would retake the high ground.
Neil Armstrongs "giant leap for mankind" eight years later on the moon would not have been possible without Alan Shepards small step on that spring day in 1961. President Kennedy, desperate to divert public criticism of the Bay of Pigs debacle, used Mr. Shepards successful flight as the impetus for his challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. Kennedys ambitious goal gave form and direction to both the U.S. and Soviet space programs and made Mr. Shepards flight, quite literally, the starting gun for the space race between the worlds two superpowers.
As one of the original seven Mercury astronauts chosen in 1959, Mr. Shepard was already a celebrity, but his space flight made him a true hero and an embodiment of the pioneering spirit of the New Frontier of the 1960s. While he was to be eclipsed as a pop culture icon less than a year later by John Glenn and his history-making first orbital flight in Friendship 7, Mr. Shepard gave the U.S. manned space program a can-do public countenance that helped build confidence in the fledgling effort at a critical time. Notwithstanding the sinking of the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft at the end of the next Mercury mission and the near-drowning of its pilot, Gus Grissom, or the loss of radio contact for 30 minutes after splashdown of Scott Carpenters Aurora 7 craft, Mr. Shepards flight demonstrated that America could succeed in space.
In this era of the International Space Station and commonplace shuttle missions its hard to recapture the sheer electricity of the moment when Mr. Shepard flew. Technological progress is assumed today, and when it comes it is usually little more than an expected outcome. Sometimes it is even feared. But back then space flight was still miraculous; touching the heavens with the human hand was among our noblest of goals. Science was still god-like in its potential for good in the public mind. Whatever our racial or social shortcomings, it was holy writ among the generation of Americans who had fought and won World War II that we could invent or discover our way over any challenge. We, as a people, were better than any obstacle in our path, be it natural or man-made. Mr. Shepards flight renewed that faith.
There will be too few commemorations on this anniversary of Mr. Shepards Freedom 7 flight. The crew of the International Space Station may briefly stop their work, and a few speeches may be made at NASAs offices, but we might all benefit by taking a moment or two to remember an event that changed America 40 years ago.

Eric Christensen, a leading contributor to "Magills Survey of Science: Space Exploration Series," is vice president for development and communications at Landmark Legal Foundation.

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