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May-June 2011

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Retrospect: May 5, 1961: The First American in Space

Caption: U.S. Weather Bureau Daily Weather Map for 1:00 a.m. EST, May 5, 1961. A stationary front across the Florida Peninsula brought the threat for rain and thunderstorms that would have further delayed the launch of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, as did a squall line three days prior.

Caption: U.S. Weather Bureau Daily Weather Map for 1:00 a.m. EST, May 5, 1961. A stationary front across the Florida Peninsula brought the threat for rain and thunderstorms that would have further delayed the launch of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, as did a squall line three days prior.

When Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter outer space on April 12, 1961, it was a triumph not only for the Soviet Union, but for humanity as a whole. While the Soviets may have beaten the United States in reaching this major milestone of the Space Race, the United States didn't lag far behind with the successful launch of Navy Commander Alan Shepard into a suborbital flight aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft on May 5. While Shepard's flight only lasted 15 minutes and did not orbit the Earth, as Gagarin's did, Shepard did have manual control over his spacecraft, something his cosmonaut counterpart did not have.

Shepard's mission was part of NASA's Project Mercury, whose main scientific objective was “to determine man's capabilities in a space environment and in those environments to which he will be subject upon going into and returning from space.”

The launch was originally scheduled to take place on May 2, but was postponed due to weather. “In the final hours after midnight, a squall line moved over the cape and the flight area,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “At 4 a.m. (EDT) meteorologists said the weather situation was ‘still a tossup’ between satisfactory and bad.” High winds and rough seas at Shepard's landing spot off Grand Bahama Island also played into the decision to postpone the launch. NASA requirements for the launch stipulated that the sky at the take-off and landing sites should be no more than four-tenths covered by clouds, that winds not exceed 18 knots, and waves at the landing site be no more than three feet high.

The meteorologists were not the only ones who were uncertain about the situation. Shepard himself later recalled feeling that the squall line—which was ahead of a cold front that stretched from Virginia to the Gulf coast—would interfere with his historic launch:

On the morning of May 2, 1961, when I was first scheduled to go, a heavy rain was falling outside and flashes of lightning were playing around the launching pad three miles away. The signs were not propitious, and at 3:30 a.m., with the liquid oxygen fuel already loaded aboard the booster, the technicians took a look at the lightning and declared a hold. They started working again at 3:50, with the count at T minus 290 minutes.

I frankly did not think we would go that morning. I was not trying to second-guess anyone, but the weather did not look good at all. I was sure we would not get the results we needed even if we did go. But the crews were ahead on the countdown, and if we did not try it that morning we would have to go through a long 48-hour delay before we could refuel the Redstone and try again.

Over the next two days, as technicians drained the fuel from the 83-foot tall, 33-ton rocket, rechecked its circuitry, and repaired one of its liquid oxygen lines, Shepard got some rest, went for a run at a local beach, and went over mission details with his roommate, fellow Mercury Seven astronaut John Glenn.

Caption: Alan Shepard in capsule aboard Freedom 7 before launch.

Caption: Alan Shepard in capsule aboard Freedom 7 before launch.

Meanwhile, the cold front that was positioned across the Southeast on May 2 was now stalled over the Florida Peninsula as a stationary front, threatening to further delay the launch. “The weather outlook is not encouraging,” reported The New York Times on May 3. “A continuation of the bad weather that caused yesterday's launching to be canceled midway in the countdown threatens to keep conditions below Project Mercury minimums ‘for the next few days.’”

The next day the Hartford Courant warned that “the U.S. Weather Bureau said widely scattered squalls are expected for the next two days over Florida and the offshore areas. The disturbances were more likely over the capsule recovery zone than over the launch site here, the bureau said.”

Finally, officials deemed that conditions would improve enough for the launch to “go” on Friday, May 5. “That was the word Thursday from the weather man,” read an article in the Atlanta Daily World. NASA Public Information Officer John H. Powers told reporters, “The weather man tells us that it looks like the weather will be clear enough for us to go … the chances are better than 50-50 in our book that we can get off the launching before the weather worsens.”

Shepard later recalled his relief at finally being able to complete his mission and to take his place in history. “At the scheduled meeting Thursday morning, we got pretty fair weather reports,” he said. “The launch crews were picking up the count again at T minus 390 minutes, and I felt glad that I was going to be able to give it a whirl.”

And give it a whirl he did, lifting off at 9:53 a.m., as towering cumulus clouds moved northeastward east of the launch pad. According to one news report, “The rocket shot into a large cloud overhanging the Cape, then emerged on course.” As he soared into space at speeds exceeding 5,000 mph, Shepard took note of the view below:

To the south, I could see where the cloud cover stopped at about Fort Lauderdale, and that the weather was clear all the way down past the Florida Keys. To the north, I could see up the coast of the Carolinas to where the clouds just obscured Cape Hatteras. Across Florida to the west I could spot Lake Okeechobee, Tampa Bay, and even Pensacola. Because there were some scattered clouds far beneath me, I was not able to see some of the Bahama Islands that I had been briefed to look for. So I shifted to an open area and identified Andros Island and Bimini. The colors around these ocean islands were brilliantly clear, and I could see sharp vibrations between the blue of deep water and the light green of the shoal areas near the reefs. It was really stunning.

Another difference between Shepard's flight and that of cosmonaut Gagarin was the amount of publicity beforehand. Whereas the press widely covered the Mercury Project in the weeks and months leading up to the liftoff on May 5, the Soviet government kept a tight lid on Gagarin's flight, holding any announcement that it even took place until after he safely returned to Earth. Some members of Congress felt that less publicity prior to Shepard's mission would have been a good idea. “I don't see why we have to make it such a major production,” Senator Howard Cannon of Nevada told reporters, “particularly when there are so many things that can go wrong, such as the weather.”

Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a New York-based Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM), Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM), and science writer with an interest in weather history.

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