Posted at 03:16 PM ET, 05/05/2011

Alan Shepard and the ‘fabulous’ flight into space

Alan Shepard heading to the launchpad. (By Ralph Morse/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Fifty years ago, the United States took its first major leap forward in the space race when Alan Shepard launched into a 15-minute suborbital flight. has a gallery of images of Shepard and his flight here.

On May 6, 1961, this story ran in The Washington Post:

Millions gathered around radios and TV sets in their homes, at bars and restaurants and on street corners for the countdown and, finally, the blastoff that sent the 37-year-old Navy commander aloft.

Newspapers and broadcast stations were flooded with calls.

“It’s fabulous,” said Josephine Marino, a New York beautician. “I feel like celebrating. We’re really on our way — in fact we’ve caught up with and passed the Russians, to my way of thinking.”

“I think it’s the greatest thing that ever happened,” Los Angeles maintenance man Willis Reed said. “It won’t be long now ’til we can go to the moon.”

Another article reads:

Spaceman Alan B. Shepard’s “perfect flight” was toasted in champagne when he arrived here today, but doctors waiting to check him over did not allow him to participate.

Flashing a Grand Canyon-sized grin, the hungry Shepard enjoyed a huge shrimp cocktail, roast beef sandwich and iced tea.

Hurried into isolation of a hospital guarded by a sentry with holstered pistol, the young astronaut then began at least 24 hours of comprehensive medical and psychological checkups, and detailed reports on all technicalities of his historic mission.

“He looks great, feels great. He is jolly and joking as Al always is,” said Capt. Virgil Grissom, a fellow astronaut who admits he was a bit envious and certainly hopes he will be chosen for the next rocket ride.

A Floridian wishes the Mercury astronauts Godspeed. (By Ralph Morse/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Shepard on board the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain after his splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, not far from Grand Bahama Island. “Apparently unaffected by the extreme forces of his flight," LIFE reported, "Shepard trotted easily across the carrier deck with the manner of the fighter pilot he used to be rather than that of a national hero.” (MPI/Getty Images)

Six of the seven original Mercury astronauts in early 1961, shortly after three of them — Shepard, John Glenn and Gus Grissom — were named candidates for the May 1961 space flight. (That's Shepard, clowning, with Gordon Cooper, Donald "Deke" Slayton, Glenn, Scott Carpenter and Walter Schirra. Grissom was away on missile-tracking duty.) (By Ralph Morse/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

See more images here.

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