50 years ago today, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He took a 15 minute flight involving 5 minutes of weightlessness in which he demonstrated that humans can survive and function efficiently in zero gravity for more than 30 seconds.
These conclusions were far from guaranteed. Up until this point, a human could experience only up to about 30 seconds of weightlessness at a time – in an airplane on a parabolic flight. But without gravity, what would happen? Would the eyes cease to function? Would the flow of blood and body fluids from the legs to the head disrupt brain functions?
We had some evidence that humans could survive. After all, the Soviet Union had recently had an astronaut in space for over 90 minutes. But Yuri Gagarin – for all of his bravery (and he was a very brave human being) - didn’t do anything. He was a passenger riding inside of an airtight cannonball shot around the world. Shepherd was given a series of experiments to run through – observation experiments as well as proving the ability to maneuver his Freedom 7 spacecraft.
Ultimately, I hold that the accomplishments of NASA are worth celebrating more than those of the Soviet space program at the time.
The most important reason is because NASA’s successes and failures were open to the public. The Soviet space agency conducted its operations in secrecy, announcing only its successes to the world, or that which it could plausibly present as a success. NASA, on the other hand, had the news media present at every one of its launches. They saw not only the successes, but the failures. And NASA suffered some very embarrassing failures – failures that did nothing to boost American prestige.
Other than the prestige of being able to claim that we are an open society, while the Soviet Union was a closed and secretive society – which is very much something worth bragging about.
So where, in a sense, Gagarin’s near orbit of the earth lasted longer and went further than Shepard's 15 minute flight, Shepherd’s flight accomplished more. And Shepherd’s flight accomplished more – and was more worth celebrating.
However, the human brain does not seem to think that way. It takes distance and length of time as a measure of success – and holds that Americans did not match the Soviet accomplishment until John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962.
In fact, in our national consciousness, Glenn is more widely recognized than Shepard. Many people who do not study the history of space will tell you that Glenn was America’s first astronaut – the first American space hero. They cannot tell you even the names of the Shepard and Gus Grissom – at least in relation to the Mercury program. Shepherd will eventually land on the moon in Apollo 14. Grissom will die in a launch pad fire during a test of what became known as Apollo 1.
And, again, I do not wish to be thought of as claiming that Glenn’s flight is unworthy of honored – that it was “nothing” compared to Shepard. It was a next and substantially larger step than the one Shepard took. It was 4.5 hours spent in weightless space compared to Shepard’s five minutes – though the Soviets had put humans into space for over a day by the time the Americans reached orbit.
Gordon Cooper would be the first American to orbit the Earth for longer than a day – in 1963.
Eventually, the American system of test, study, change, and retest – the scientific-minded attitude that American applied to its space program – which allowed for no supernatural explanations but sought the real causes and effects of real-world changes - would prove superior to the Soviet attitude and methodology. In 8 years, 2 months, and 15 days from the time that this first 15 minute flight took place, NASA would launch a flight that lasted 2 weeks and put two humans on the moon, and returned them safely to earth.
It’s a very powerful way of approaching problems – one that tends to accomplish a lot more than brute force or faith.