On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space. The 37-year-old piloted a 15-minute suborbital flight as part of NASA's Project Mercury.
Shepard walks to the rocket that would launch his capsule into space. He was one of the Mercury Seven -- NASA's first astronauts.
Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Shepard peers into his Freedom 7 capsule before launch. At the time, the U.S. space program was trying to catch up with the Soviet Union. Just 23 days earlier, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history when he became the first human in space.
Shepard's colleague John Glenn flashes the OK sign after checking out Shepard's capsule before launch. In February 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Ralph Morse/LIFE/Getty Images
Shepard waits inside his capsule before launch. Complications delayed launch by four hours, and Shepard had to stay strapped in the entire time. There was no easy way for astronauts to urinate at that time, so when nature called, Shepard had no choice but to go in his spacesuit.
Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images
The Redstone rocket carrying Freedom 7 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 9:34 a.m.
Shepard was carried 115 miles above the Earth's surface and 302 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
Shepard's view of Earth wasn't as blue as this photo taken from the capsule. A gray filter was inadvertently left on Shepard's periscope window, so he saw Earth in black and white. He still said, "What a beautiful view!"
A helicopter picks up Shepard after his capsule landed in the Atlantic Ocean. Engineers said the spacecraft was in such great shape that it could be reused.
Shepard is airlifted to safety. Eleven minutes after landing, he was on board the USS Lake Champlain, where he took a congratulatory phone call from President John F. Kennedy.
MPI/Archive Photos/Getty Images
When Shepard was picked up, his first words were, "Man, what a ride!"
Shepard walks on the USS Lake Champlain after his landing. President Kennedy awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal one day later, and a ticker-tape parade drew 250,000 people in Washington. Decades later, Glenn recalled the significance of Shepard's accomplishment. "We had been beaten in the early days of the space race by a country that bragged (by saying) America now sleeps under a Soviet moon. But Al brought us back."
Shepard walks away from his Freedom 7 capsule following a post-flight inspection aboard the aircraft carrier. He would visit space again a decade later, walking on the moon as part of the Apollo program. Shepard died in 1998 at the age of 74.