NASA marks 50th anniversary of manned U.S. space flight

Thu May 5, 2011 3:17pm EDT
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla (Reuters) - The United States space program was down and out when Alan Shepard climbed inside a one-man capsule on May 5, 1961, for a 15-minute ride.

Cold War rival Russia had flown cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin first -- less than a month before on a flight that was higher and longer -- and some in the nascent NASA thought the space race was already lost.

"When (Shepard) took off, he carried NASA on his shoulders," said Shepard biographer and long-time space journalist Jay Barbree. "If he failed, he knew it would be the failure of the space program."

At the wind-swept launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where Shepard blasted off, former astronauts, NASA guests and community leaders gathered Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first flight of a U.S. astronaut into space.

The observation of Shepard's flight comes as NASA is finishing up a key chapter in its history. The agency is retiring the space shuttles this year after two more flights due to high operating costs and to free up funds to develop spaceships with longer range.

Shepard's 116-mile- -high jaunt beyond the atmosphere led to six U.S. moon landings and the space shuttle program.

"Project Mercury gave our country something new," said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, a former space shuttle astronaut.

Shepard's fellow Mercury Seven astronaut Scott Carpenter also attended the anniversary ceremony, which featured a high-definition rebroadcast of Shepard's inaugural mission.   Continued...

<p>Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in a 1971 file photo. REUTERS/File</p>