On this day in 1923, Alan Shepard (1st American in Space) is born. Named Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. at birth, Alan grew up in rural New Hampshire. After graduating from high school, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating the day after D-Day. An ensign, Shepard spent the last year of World War II on a destroyer in the Pacific.
Over the next 15 years, Shepard served in the Navy in various capacities.
In 1959, 110 test pilots were invited to volunteer for the space flight program headed by the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although Shepard was on the list, a snafu kept him from receiving his invitation. Regardless, he was selected as one of the first seven astronauts for the organization. Known as the Mercury 7, the group included John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Donald “Deke” Slayton, Malcolm “Scott” Carpenter, Walter “Wally” Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. From this prestigious group of highly trained fliers, Shepard was selected to man the first space flight, with Glenn acting as his backup.
The stakes were raised in the space race on April 15, 1961, when the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and he became the first person to orbit the Earth. Gagarin beat the Americans by less than a month. On May 5, Freedom 7 lifted off, carrying Shepard to an altitude of 116 miles for a 15-minute flight.
Ten years later, Shepard would leave Earth’s atmosphere again to become the fifth man to walk on the moon — and the first one to play golf there.
In 1974, Shepard retired from NASA as rear admiral. He worked in the private sector, and started an umbrella company, Seven Fourteen Enterprises, named for the Freedom 7 and Apollo 14 missions.
In 1984, he worked with the other surviving Mercury astronauts and the widow of Apollo 1 victim Gus Grissom to found the Mercury Seven Foundation. Later renamed the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, the organization raises money for college students studying science and engineering.
After a struggle with leukemia, Shepard passed away on July 21, 1998, at the age of 74.
Sources: Wikipedia & Space.com