Alan Shepard - Freedom 7 Mission (Credit: NASA, Source: NASA on the Commons - Flickr)

On this day in 1961, naval aviator Alan Shepard made history when he was carried off into space by NASA’s Mercury-Redstone launch vehicle. Mercury-Redstone 3 — the third mission conducted by NASA’s Project Mercury — was an astounding success, as Shepard became the first American astronaut to make it into space.

Manned spaceflight had always been the primary goal of the Mercury program. The United States had hoped to be the first country to accomplish this task, but the Soviet Union beat them to the punch when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin successfully completed the Vostok 1 mission, making him the first human being to go to space. Less than a month later, Shepard became the second person to do so.

On the morning of May 5, 1961, Shepard took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 9:34 AM EST. Though the launch countdown was halted a couple of times — once due to excessive cloud cover, and once due to a minor technical issue at Goddard Space Flight Center — Shepard did not encounter any major problems after launch. His suborbital flight lasted approximately 15 minutes and concluded with the safe return of his Freedom 7 capsule to Earth; Shepard named the craft Freedom 7 in honor of NASA’s first astronaut group, affectionately dubbed the “Mercury 7.”

Upon his return, Shepard was hailed as a national hero. Parades were held in his honor in several major American cities, and he was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross by President John F. Kennedy. Roughly ten years later, Shepard became the oldest person to ever walk on the Moon when he commanded the Apollo 14 mission. In 1974, after having achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, Shepard officially retired from both the Navy and NASA.