Alan Shepard heading to the launchpad. (By Ralph Morse/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

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)

See more images here.