Thursday, May 5, 2011

50 Years

On this morning 50 years ago, Naval pilot Alan Shepard, wearing his silver flight suit and white helmet, was raised by a small elevator to his waiting spacecraft, Freedom 7, perched atop a modified Redstone IRBM. Delays ensued at Cape Canaveral, as engineers and technicians raced to eliminate any glitch that popped up that would compromise the safety of the spacecraft's pilot. Shepard was getting weary of these holds to the countdown, and knowing his prowess as a test pilot, with a steely determination said, "Let's light this candle!" At 9:34am ET, the engine of the Redstone ignited, and America watched it's first astronaut ascend to space. 15 minutes later, the trip was over, with Freedom 7 safely parachuting to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean 300 miles away from the Cape. The astronaut and his spacecraft were recovered by aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain, a welcome sight to Shepard.

Today, to honor the service of Shepard, the Freedom 7 is on display in Annapolis, Maryland, at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center. Access is available to the public. The capsule has a place of honor in the rotunda leading to the center's exhibit area. It is encased in plexiglas, missing its hatch (which was jettisoned by Shepard during recovery), and has the Earth observing periscope deployed. This capsule was originally displayed in the Smithsonian, then moved to the National Air & Space Museum.

Today, we celebrate 50 years of Americans in Space, as we honor the flight of Freedom 7.