Billionaire rocket race shows how remarkable Alan Shepard’s 1961 space flight was

When Alan Shepard became the first American to go to space more than 60 years ago, he did so atop a modified military ballistic missile, the Redstone rocket.

The former naval aviator and test pilot took his place in history by wearing the iconic Mercury spacesuit, which NASA decided was not fitted with a system to allow access to the toilet. With his flight expected to last only 15 minutes, the space agency didn’t factor in any delays, but Mr Shepard waited on the launch pad for four hours before leaving the planet and ended up getting into his suit.

Inside that suit, Mr Shepard also held a dollar bill with his unique serial number, which would be used by US National Aeronautic Association officials to certify that the astronaut loaded on the rocket was the same one as the one from the Atlantic. Was rescued from the ocean. This became standard procedure on all US space flights and was used to verify each Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space flight.

It’s a far cry from the flights made this month by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, which were live-streamed around the world using multiple camera angles both outside and inside the spacecraft.

And the Blue Origin founder was so confident in the spacecraft that he and his three crew mates wore just light flight suits inside the pressurized cabin as they headed away from Earth.

It is extremely rare for astronauts not to wear a space suit for launch as a backup for a cabin pressurization failure, but it was also the policy of the crew of Virgin Galactic, who wore an Under Armor flight suit.

Mr Bezos, the world’s richest man, this month became the second billionaire to reach the edge of space on a vehicle built by his private space company.

The Amazon founder lifted off Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket a week after Richard Branson took his company Virgin Galactic into space on its own spacecraft.

The space adventures of the two entrepreneurs made headlines around the world and were hailed as the future of space tourism.

But observers have also pointed out that even with the more advanced technology available to engineers, the flights still achieved essentially the same feat Mr Shepard achieved when he became the first American to go to space in May 1961.

Mr Bezo’s flight took place in the crew capsule atop the New Shepard booster, which was named in honor of Alan Shepard.

Mr. Bezos and his three crewmates reached the edge of suborbital space at an altitude of 62 miles above Earth, after take-off.

“I am reminded of Alan Shepard and his first Mercury flight which was a rocket booster and a capsule,” said Bill Harwood, senior space analyst at CBS News.

“It’s the same philosophy, and like that original Mercury flight, they have an abort system, so if there’s a malfunction they can get away with the rocket,” Harwood said.

But some observers said the flights of Mr Bezos and Mr Branson actually showed the achievements of Mr Shepard and the team that launched them into space decades ago.

Former astronaut Clayton Anderson directly compared Mr Bezo’s flight to that of Mr Shepard in 1961.

“Jeff Bezos and his people at Blue Origin, they were able to piggyback on more than 40 years of NASA work,” he told Yahoo Finance.

“He did what Alan Shepard… did in 1961, but he did it much more efficiently in a way cooler fashion based on leaps in technology.”

And social media users were quick to remind people about Mr Shepard’s achievements six decades ago.

“I don’t lose much sleep over billionaire space ego trips. The end result is advances in commercial space flight. But it’s all a reminder of how miraculous the venture into space really was in the 1960s with comparatively primitive technology ,” tweeted Josh Marshall talking points memo.

“Private space flight is a good thing that will only get better. But let’s not get carried away with Branson and Bezos’ flights. They barely touched the edge of space and turned around. Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut to go into space, said in May, Did that in 1961!” pre tweeted wall street journal Editor Walt Mossberg,

And Senator Elizabeth Warren was quick to take a shot at the Amazon founder, too.

It’s time for Jeff Bezos to take care of business right here on earth and pay his fair share in taxes, he tweeted.

Mr Shepard was beaten in space by the Russian Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man to go to space in April 1961, after the US delayed its own launch on several occasions.

On 5 May 1961, Shepard piloted the Mercury Spacecraft 7, which he named Freedom 7, on a suborbital flight that lasted 15 minutes and reached an altitude of 101.2 miles before plunging down into the Atlantic.

Mr Bezos and his crew were aboard his flight for approximately 11 minutes, and enjoyed three minutes of weightlessness, and successfully reached the internationally recognized mark as spaceflight.

5 May 1961: Launch of the United States’ first manned space flight, a sub-orbital mission, with astronaut Alan B. Shepherd Jr. on a Mercury-Redstone MR3 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA.

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5 May 1961: Launch of the United States’ first manned space flight, a sub-orbital mission, with astronaut Alan B. Shepherd Jr. on a Mercury-Redstone MR3 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA.

After reaching this high point, the capsule successfully and safely returned to Earth using a parachute.

The Amazon founder’s flight was about 69,000 feet higher than Mr. Branson’s, which was still above the 50-mile altitude recognized by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Gene Gerulskis, executive director of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, New Hampshire, said NMR Shepard would be honored to associate his name with the flight.

“He was very competitive. So, I think he would like the idea that Jeff Bezos is going up about 106 kilometers. Shepard went up 187 kilometers. Jeff Bezos is going up for 11 minutes. Shepard is going up 15 minutes.” Gone. So, I think he’ll really like it,” said Ms. Gerulskis.


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