CollectSpace / Robert Z. Pearlman
NASA commemorates the 50th anniversary of the first American spaceflight, the Freedom 7 launch of Alan Shepard, with an 80-foot replica of Shepard’s rocket.
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updated 5/5/2011 6:46:22 PM ET 2011-05-05T22:46:22

NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. manned spaceflight Thursday with a time-synchronized multimedia replay of the historic event held at the same launch pad here that was used by the late Alan B. Shepard Jr. on May 5, 1961.

The audio-and-video presentation, which was projected on a Jumbotron positioned near an 80-foot replica of Shepard’s rocket, was timed to match the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission’s milestones, particularly the exact moment of launch and splashdown — 9:34 a.m. and 9:49 a.m. EDT, respectively.

"It was an intense countdown. Everybody had their job. There was no joking around," said Mercury chief test conductor Bob Moser before the liftoff was replayed. "But we enjoyed it, and it worked. Congratulations to all of us. We were a great team."

"To me — and I've gone through hundreds of launches and done countdowns in hundreds of launches — the first is always very special," said Jack King, former chief of NASA's Public Information Office. "I must admit, it's the only one when I was misty-eyed. The first American in space! I couldn't be prouder. And I couldn't be prouder for being a part of it."

America's first spaceflight
The ceremony, which brought more than 100 workers from the original Mercury Project to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's historic Launch Complex-5 (LC-5), also included veteran space journalist Jay Barbree, Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter and Shepard’s three daughters.

"I remember every time he spoke, he always gave credit to everyone in NASA who built the good ships that brought him home to us safely," said Shepard’s daughter, Laura Churchley, who spoke alongside her sisters Alice Wackermann and Julie Jenkins. "We thank you all very much."

Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also attended the event, speaking about the journey of Shepard's Freedom 7 spacecraft and the astronaut's impact on the history of spaceflight.

"It's an honor to share this day with so many people who helped NASA pioneer human spaceflight and enable the agency's many accomplishments throughout our existence," said Bolden. "I salute all of you."

The ceremony honored the NASA and contractor workers who made Project Mercury possible and the influence that the success of the program has had on the country.

The flight of Freedom 7
Fifty years ago today, as the world watched live on television, Shepard blasted off atop the 80-foot Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral's Pad 5. The suborbital flight reached a maximum speed of roughly eight times the speed of sound, and topped out at an altitude of 116 miles above the Earth. The flight reached space, but did not make a full orbit around the Earth.

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With parachutes deploying, the one-man capsule safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean some 300 miles from the launch site.

The New York Times declared that Shepard's 15-minute flight "roused the country to one of its highest peaks of exultation since the end of World War II."

Emboldened by this achievement, President John F. Kennedy declared in a historic speech on May 25, 1961, that the United States "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."

The Mercury Project set the nation on a path that would lead to the Apollo 11's first manned moon landing on July 20, 1969. Two years later, Shepard became the fifth man to walk on the moon (and, famously, the only one to hit a golf ball from its surface) as commander of the Apollo 14 mission.

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Photos: Remembering America's first astronaut

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  1. Cover boys

    Fifty years ago, America's astronauts were celebrities. The cover of Life magazine's issue for March 3, 1961, featured Mercury astronauts John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Dining before flying

    Astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn share breakfast in their robes just before Shepard's Freedom 7 spaceflight on May 5, 1961. Glenn, the prime backup pilot for Shepard's suborbital flight, would later become the first American to go into orbit. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. All bodily systems go

    Alan Shepard has his blood pressure and temperature checked prior to his Freedom 7 flight. The attending physician is Dr. William K. Douglas. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Suiting up

    Inside the suiting trailer, astronaut Alan Shepard is dressed in his pressure suit and seated in a reclining chair while a technician checks communications equipment in his helmet. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Looking in

    Alan Shepard looks into the Freedom 7 capsule just before he climbs in for launch on May 5, 1961. Shepard was sealed inside the capsule for four hours while Mission Control dealt with technical glitches and weather-related delays. During one of the holds, Shepard urged ground controllers to "fix your little problem and light this candle." (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Silver spaceman

    Alan Shepard's spacesuit was a full-body pressure suit originally developed by the B.F. Goodrich Co. and the U.S. Navy for wear by high-altitude fighter pilots. The suit's aluminized nylon exterior provides the classic silver look. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'You're on your way!'

    The Redstone rocket rises from its Florida launch pad on May 5, 1961, with America's first astronaut, Alan Shepard, inside the Mercury capsule on top. "You're on your way, Jose," fellow astronaut Deke Slayton called out from Mission Control. The nickname was a reference to comedian Bill Dana's fictitious astronaut character, Jose Jimenez. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'The clock has started'

    Moments after the Freedom 7 launch, astronaut Alan Shepard called back, "Roger, liftoff, and the clock has started." During the ascent, Shepard experienced an acceleration of 6.3 g's. In comparison, shuttle astronauts typically experience a peak of 3 g's during launch and re-entry. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Beautiful view

    Astronaut Alan Shepard was the first American to see Earth from an altitude ranging as high as 116 miles. "On the periscope, what a beautiful view," he radioed. "Cloud cover over Florida. Three to four tenths near the eastern coast. Obscured up to Hatteras." (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Splashdown

    After a little more than 15 minutes of flight, Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 capsule splashed down in the Atlantic, about 300 miles east of the Cape Canaveral launch pad. A Marine helicopter came to Shepard's rescue. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Hoisted up

    Astronaut Alan Shepard is pulled up to his rescue helicopter after America's first manned spaceflight on May 5, 1961. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Astronaut on deck

    Alan Shepard walks away from the Freedom 7 capsule after making a postflight inspection aboard the USS Lake Champlain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. All smiles

    Alan Shepard arrives at Grand Bahamas Island and is greeted by fellow Mercury astronauts Deke Slayton (left) and Gus Grissom (far right). Air Force Col. Keith Lindell walks between Shepard and Grissom. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Visiting the White House

    President John F. Kennedy congratulates Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard during a Rose Garden ceremony on May 8, 1961, at the White House. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb and several NASA astronauts are in the background. Less than a month later, Kennedy addressed Congress on his plan to put an American on the moon by the end of the decade. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Enjoying the parade

    After the spaceflight, astronaut Alan Shepard and his wife Louise ride in celebratory motorcade with Vice President Lyndon Johnson seated between them in the back seat. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The centerpiece of the Graduates in Space exhibit at the U.S. Naval Academy Visitors Center in Annapolis, Md. is the Freedom 7 space capsule, flown into space in 1961 by Naval Academy graduate Alan B. Shepard, Jr.(Class of 1945). (U.S. Naval Academy) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 50 years later

    Alan Shepard went on to walk on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, and passed away in 1998 at the age of 74. On May 4, 2011, a stamp set commemorating the 50th anniversary of Shepard's Mercury flight as well as the Messenger mission to Mercury was unveiled at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Among the special guests at the ceremony was Alan Shepard's daughter, Julie Shepard Jenkins. (Michael R. Brown / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Relive NASA's first human spaceflight

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