When John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961, the United States was lagging behind the Soviets in the “space race," and the newly elected president recognized that space exploration had implications for world leadership. In a memorandum to Vice President Lyndon Johnson dated April 20, 1961, President Kennedy asked, “Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs? If not, why not?”
The Launch of Freedom 7
In 1959, Alan B. Shepard was one of 11 military test pilots invited by the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration to volunteer for the first US manned space flight program. Following a grueling series of physical and psychological tests, NASA selected Shepard to be one of the original group of seven Mercury astronauts, who are now famously called "The Mercury 7."
On May 5, 1961, at 9:34am EST, astronaut Alan Shepard, a native of Derry New Hampshire, piloted Freedom 7 to become the first American in space. Clamped atop a Redstone rocket nearly seven stories high, the capsule was blasted into a sub-orbital flight that laid to rest any doubts that man could function in space—at least for a short period. Shepard managed and monitored 27 major events and communicated with Mercury Control 78 times before splashing down safely in the Atlantic Ocean.
Shepard and his capsule attained a maximum speed of 5180 mph and rose to an altitude of 116.5 miles. The sub-orbital flight lasted 15 minutes and 22 seconds. Freedom 7 parachuted into the sea 302 miles from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and was retrieved by helicopter, along with Shepard.
The flight was the first to play out live on television, with millions of people sharing in the tension and excitement as the historic event unfolded before their eyes. On his return to Earth, Shepard was given a hero’s welcome for his service to the country. He was honored with parades in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, and President Kennedy presented him with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in a ceremony at the White House.
Freedom 7's Legacy
Three weeks after Freedom 7’s successful mission, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced to the nation the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade, saying:
“I believe this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Ten years later, at age 47 the oldest astronaut in the program, Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 mission, piloting the lander to the most accurate landing of the Apollo missions. He became the fifth person to walk on the Moon, and the only astronaut of the Mercury Seven to walk on the Moon. During the mission he hit two golf balls on the lunar surface.
NASA gave Freedom 7 to the Smithsonian in October 1961, the first manned spacecraft accessioned into the National Collection. It is also the only Mercury capsule of the original type flown by an astronaut. It has small portholes instead of a window over the head of the astronaut, and the main hatch lacks explosive bolts for emergency escape.
Freedom 7 has been on display at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD since 1998. At the request of Caroline Kennedy, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and the US Naval Academy welcomed the idea of celebrating the role of US Navy veteran John F. Kennedy in America’s space effort.
On August 29, 2012, Freedom 7 arrived at the JFK Library. With the help of countless staff from the Smithsonian and the JFK Library, Freedom 7 was installed in the museum at the John F. Kennedy Library. On September 12, 2012, Freedom 7 will go on display for the public. On loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum through December 2015, the installation of Freedom 7 was made possible through the generous sponsorship of Kennedy Library Foundation Board member Fereydoun Firouz.