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How America's first astronaut 'got it done' in 1961

Get the inside story about Alan Shepard's first U.S. manned spaceflight in a 50th-anniversary account from Jay Barbree, NBC News' Cape Canaveral correspondent.

The invasion force that gathered outside the home of Louise and Alan Shepard was on its own "hold," sipping coffee and consuming the pastries that were brought to them by the Shepards' neighbors.

Photographers, television crews, reporters and broadcasters were all playing the waiting game, hoping that Louise Shepard would emerge from her home to talk with them, tell them how she felt, what her emotions were, everything from pride to fear of ...

No. She would not admit to the wolves at the door that anything could go wrong. This moment felt familiar. She’d waited before when Alan had flown closer to the earth, as a Navy test pilot. She knew the clammy feelings when he was late, but that was a straight road to a nervous breakdown, and she had pushed all that away from her long before now.

Test planes or rockets. It didn’t matter. If the danger was real, Alan would have told her. They lived by that agreement. No heroics. The truth, plain and simple.

She had unquestioned faith and confidence in her husband. If the metal parts held together and the flame burned bright and true, and success hinged on the performance of Commander Alan Shepard, then he’d do his job.

Now there was something new. She smiled at the television. Now they could do more than just listen. Thanks to the box that snatched pictures magically out of air and displayed them on a screen, they could hear and see what was happening.

She understood the pressure on the media to ask her questions and share her thoughts and feelings with readers and viewers and listeners throughout the world. In many ways, she spoke for them all. They could transfer their own empathy for whatever it was they thought she was enduring. It was a tug of war between what people wanted to see, hear, and feel, and the intensity of her own desire to preserve the integrity and privacy not only of her family but of Alan himself.

The journalists waiting outside included compassionate souls as well as story-hungry flacks with no concern for the feelings of others. They represented the broad spectrum of a nation eager for news. But she was Mrs. Alan Shepard, and they would respect that, period. Through the long night she had heard footsteps coming up on her front porch, each time followed by a pause and the sound of retreat as the visitors read the note she had left on her door:


She was grateful they had chosen to respect her wishes, to accept her word there were no reporters in her home.  A rumor had circulated among the gathered press that Life magazine had a reporter and photographer inside.

Louise watched the crowd, then turned from the window, lifting the small transistor radio she’d carried all morning to her ear. The station was carrying the Cape Canaveral broadcast live.  She didn’t want to miss a beat.

"Louise!"  Her father called. "Better get in here! They’ve picked up the countdown!"

She joined the family, staring at the slender rocket standing alone.  It looked like a marble pillar from some ancient Greek painting, and she knelt before it, instinctively reaching forward to touch the live television picture of the Mercury-Redstone and the Freedom 7 capsule.  She desperately wished to touch her husband.

Inside Freedom 7
T-minus seven.

Alan drew strength from Deke’s firm voice.


Hang in there with me, Deke ...


He pushed his feet firmly against the capsule’s floor.


A finger on the stopwatch — must initiate time at the moment of liftoff in case the automatic clock should fail.


Hand on the abort handle.  The escape tower was loaded.


Muscles tight.


"Get it done, Shepard. Get it done."


Deke Slayton’s voice rose in pitch as he sang out, "Ignition!"

Alan felt rumbling. Pumps spinning at full speed. Fuel flowing. Combustion. Fire. Before he could think about what came next, a dull roar boomed through the Redstone, rushed through Freedom 7 with a surprisingly gentle touch before it grew, louder and louder.

"Liftoff!" Deke called.

Alan felt movement.

Freedom Seven swayed slightly.

His heart pounded.

He had first motion.

"You’re on your way, Jose!" Deke shouted.

"Roger, liftoff, and the clock has started," Alan called out as the Redstone came to life gently, a slumbering giant greeting the sky with a yawn and a stretch, and now there was the power. He was on his way ...

"This is Freedom 7. Fuel is go. Oxygen is go. Cabin holding at 5.5 PSI.”  The hard data came from Alan like a ticker tape.

"I understand, cabin holding at five-point-five," Deke responded.

How incredible. The calmest two people along the entire space coast this day were Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.

Machines on the move
Even before the first swaying movement of Freedom 7, other machines were out in force in preparation for Alan Shepard’s first-ever NASA space journey. Military helicopters with rescue teams moved to the west of the launch pad while others skimmed the ocean offshore.

Streaking toward the pad in F-106 jets were astronauts Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter, primed to chase and observe the Redstone as long as they could before it sped from sight.  Tracking and search planes cruised from low-level to stratospheric heights, and the sea was dotted with swift crash boats and Navy ships, all coiled to spring to Freedom 7 in the event that the unlikely, the unthinkable, might happen.

Every road and pathway leading to and from the launch pad showed the flashing lights of fire trucks, ambulances, crash trucks, security teams, communications teams, and whatever might be needed to back up that one man already slicing into high flight.

At the center of Cape Canaveral’s 15,000 acres was a press site thrown together of trailers, television trucks, prefab offices, bleachers, high viewing stands, camera mounts, a blizzard of antennas and a snake forest of cabling along the ground. Tension on the site was as strained as anywhere else, for the fourth estate was hooked up to receiving facilities not only in the United States but also throughout the world.

A thousand or so newsmen and women had sweated out this first manned launch, working down to split-second timing, proud of their self-discipline in telling the world Alan Shepard was on his way. Then, many of them simply and plainly blew their cool.

They were screaming, “Go! Go! Go!” without regard for timing or microphones or anything save watching the Redstone liftoff. Tough and grizzled news veterans lifted faces unashamedly showing tears as they pounded fists on wooden railings, against their equipment, against the defenseless backs of their compatriots.

The great army
Beyond the Cape, down along the causeways, on the beaches, and lining the roads and highways, a great army had assembled to witness an epochal moment in history. Half a million  men, women, and children, in cars, trucks, motorcycles, trailers, motor homes, anything that would roll and move, had gathered, nudged, pushed, shoved and squeezed as close as they could get to the security perimeter of the Cape to watch and shout encouragement.

They went mad at the sight of the Redstone breaking above the tree line; their combined chorus of hope and prayer was almost as mighty as the roar of the rocket.

This was pure, naked, uninhibited emotion.   It gathered substance over the ocean surface, along the beaches, in the palmetto scrub, from every point in the compass beyond this space community.

In Cocoa Beach, people left their homes to stand outside and look toward the Cape.  They went to balconies and front lawns and back lawns. They stood atop cars and trucks and rooftops.  They left their morning coffee and bacon and eggs in restaurants to walk outside on the street or on the sands of the beach. They left beauty parlors and barbershops with sheets around their bodies.  Policemen stopped their cars and stood outside, the better to see and hear. Along the water, surfers ceased their pursuit of waves and stood, transfixed, swept up in the snap of time.

It was a moment when a town stood still.

Fire was born, the dragon howled, and the Redstone levitated with its precious human cargo.
That was but the beginning.  When the bright flame came into view, even before the deep pure sound washed across the town, something happened.

Something . . .  wonderful.

Men and women sank slowly to their knees.  Praying.

Others stood in prayer.


There was no holding back.

All that moved in Cocoa Beach were beating hearts and falling tears.

'All systems are go'
Flame lifted Freedom 7 higher, faster.

Not bad at all, he thought to himself. Damn, Shepard, this is smoother than anything you ever expected. Hang in there. It’s going beautifully.

"This is Freedom Seven. Two-point-five-g. Cabin five-point-five. Oxygen is go. The main bus is 24, and the isolated battery is 29."

A comfortable, assured "Roger" came back from Deke.

Louise Shepard stared at her television, watching the rocket lifting higher and higher.  On the screen the flame seemed as tiny as it  was bright.  She smiled, welcoming the tears as she brought a hand to her lips.  "Go, Alan," she said quietly, "Go, sweetheart."

Mercury Control called out the time hack.  "Plus two minutes..."

Alan Shepard was now 25 miles high and accelerating through 2,700 miles an hour.

Increasing g-forces mashed him down into his couch.  It hurt and it felt terrific.

What a ride!

"All systems are go," he called down to Deke.

Prime time in the morning
Every moment of prelaunch and ascent was prime time for news coverage of the flight of Freedom Seven.  Merrill Mueller and Jay Barbree of NBC News broadcast across the length and breadth of America and through a far-flung international network covering the globe. Mueller was the veteran, the voice of confidence, unflappable, unshakable. Jay Barbree was the neophyte, learning from the master.

Mueller had done his newscasts through raging battles of war, and he’d been the voice that issued forth from the deck of the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrendered in Tokyo Bay.  He never lost his cool, he was magnificently composed, and now he was describing to the world the launch of America’s first man to hurtle into space.

He and Barbree had a thousand things to say about the astronaut, his family, the mission, the Redstone, the oddly shaped cone in which Alan Shepard rode.  Mueller could do play-by-play on a live broadcast as though he’d rehearsed it for a week.  Barbree could only stand in awe.

But Mueller had never seen a man disappearing in the bright sunlit sky as a single point of silvery flame.

The master felt his voice fading. He tried desperately to regain control. Finally the dean of broadcast description swallowed hard. He could think of only one thing to say.

"He looks so lonely up there ..."

Then Merrill Mueller, for the first time on air, fell silent.


Within days of Alan Shepard’s first flight, putting America in space, President John Kennedy would call for Americans to go to the moon and return safely before the end of the 1960s.

Excerpted from "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with Jay Barbree. Reprinted with permission. Published by Open Road Integrated Media, copyright 2011. "Moon Shot" is available from Apple iBookstore,,, Sony Reader Store and OverDrive.