50 years ago today Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space. As it happens, one of Shepard’s fellow astronauts played critical roles in both that historic mission and Celestis’ corporate history.
On the morning of May 5, 1961 – just weeks after Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to fly in space – Shepard sat in his Freedom 7 Mercury capsule that was perched atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket. After several hours of repeated launch delays, Shepard famously told mission controllers, “Fix your little problems and light this candle!” At 9:34 a.m. EST the Mercury-Redstone rocket blasted off its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Shepard’s flight lasted 15 minutes. Freedom 7 ascended to an altitude of 116 statute miles (187 kilometers), and flew at a maximum speed of 5,134 miles per hour (8,262 kilometers per hour). After flying in space for just a few minutes, Freedom 7 reentered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean where both the spacecraft and Shepard were recovered by the US Navy. Shepard’s spacecraft flew into space and returned to Earth, without orbiting Earth — just like today’s Celestis Earth Rise Service missions.
Fellow Mercury 7 Astronaut Deke Slayton served as a “CAPCOM” (“capsule communicator”) for Shepard’s 1961 mission. As CAPCOM, Slayton was the person designated by NASA to communicate with Shepard via radio, the idea being that an astronaut on the ground was the best person to handle communications with an astronaut in a space capsule. After leaving NASA in the 1970s Slayton would found Space Services Inc. of America (SSIA), from which Celestis traces its corporate history. SSIA became the first private enterprise to launch a rocket into outer space, and Celestis became the first (and only) company to launch cremated remains into the final frontier.
Actually, there were two CAPCOM’s for Shepard’s 1961 mission. Until two minutes prior to liftoff, Mercury 7 Astronaut L. Gordon Cooper served as the CAPCOM. Then, Slayton took over CAPCOM duties for the duration of the mission, including liftoff and the flight itself. Cooper, who passed away in 2004, was a participant on board Celestis’ Legacy Flight in 2007, and will be a participant on Celestis’ New Frontier Flight, an Earth-orbiting mission. (See our Launch Manifest for New Frontier launch information.)
Like Shepard’s historic spaceflight, Celestis’ Earth Rise Service missions fly into space and return to Earth without orbiting Earth. The family of each Earth Rise mission participant receives the flown capsule or module containing the cremated remains. Instead of splashing down in an ocean, Celestis Earth Rise missions land at White Sands Missile Range, not far from the launch site at Spaceport America, New Mexico. The Legacy Flight, carrying the cremated remains of Cooper, Star Trek actor James Doohan (“Scotty”) and over 200 others, was an Earth Rise service mission. Celestis launches Earth Rise missions at least once a year.
There were a number of interesting contrasts between Gagarin’s and Shepard’s 1961 spaceflights. “While Gagarin had only been a passenger in his vehicle,” quoting from an official NASA history of the space program, “Shepard was able to maneuver the Freedom 7 spacecraft himself. While the Soviet mission was veiled in secrecy, Shepard’s flight, return from space, splashdown at sea and recovery by helicopter to a waiting aircraft carrier were seen on live television by millions around the world.” And, of course, while Shepard did not orbit Earth, Gagarin did.
After his Mercury flight, Americans honored Shepard with parades in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. In a ceremony at the White House that same year, President John F. Kennedy awarded Shepard with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. Speaking of Yuri Gagarin’s monumental achievement of becoming the first human being to fly in space just 23 days prior to Shepard’s mission, Shepard said, “That little race between Gagarin and me was really, really close.”
Shepard would later command the Apollo 14 mission to the Moon where he hit his famous golf shot on the lunar surface. He retired from NASA in 1974.