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World Explorers: Alan Shepard

6 minutes

(female narrator) Alan Shepard, the first American in space, was the fifth to walk on the moon. But who would willingly blast off alone into the unknown vastness of space, with no guarantee of return?

(Shepard) Roger, liftoff and the clock is started.

(Describer) A rocket takes off. Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Alan Shepard.

(Describer) As a map zooms in on the northeast United States, the pointer on a timeline moves to 1923.

Alan Shepard was born November 18, 1923, and grew up on a New Hampshire farm. Every Saturday morning, he pedaled his bike 10 miles to the local airport to be around airplanes and pilots who flew them. Shepard served in the navy in World War II, training as an aviator. A perfectionist, admired for his bravery, he soon became a top test pilot, flying the most advanced experimental aircraft as fast and high as they could go. At that time, no human being had yet broken free from the earth's stratosphere. A man in space was the stuff of science fiction. Some believed the human body could not survive in space, or the human mind could not handle the experience-- that a man might go insane. Even so, after World War II, a "Race to Space" began. Two rival superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, competed against each other to launch rockets into space, carrying test samples, animals, and satellites, but, so far, no humans. America's first human space-flight program, Project Mercury, was born in 1958. Shepard was one of 110 test pilots chosen for rigorous testing by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration, known as NASA. Shepard and 31 other pilots passed the initial tests and then the selection process got much tougher. In addition to physically demanding feats involving acceleration, vibration, heat, and loud noise, each candidate had to prove his physical endurance. Shepard was one of only seven men chosen for the program. He was ultimately selected to be the first man in space. Shepard was thrilled at the great honor. NASA even had a new word to describe the Mercury 7-- "astronauts." But less than a month before his scheduled liftoff in 1961, in a secret Soviet mission, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and the first to orbit the earth. To make matters worse, unmanned Mercury test rockets kept going off-course, a serious malfunction that could strand an astronaut in space. If Shepard was afraid, he didn't admit it to anyone. His attitude was, "Fix the problem and let's go." On May 5, 1961, the Freedom 7 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral with Shepard as its only crewman.

(Shepard) This is Freedom 7. The fuel is go, 1.2 G, cabin at 14 P.S.I., oxygen is go.

(narrator) The flight lasted just 15 minutes. but unlike Gagarin, Shepard was able to maneuver the Freedom 7 space capsule himself. And while the Soviet mission was secret, millions around the world watched Shepard's flight on TV and were relieved to see him splash down safely.

(Describer) A helicopter pulls him up.

Parades were held in his honor and Shepard received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy. But all he could think about was his next trip in space. Unfortunately, an ear disease affecting his balance grounded Shepard for the next six years. Still, he refused to give up, finally undergoing surgery to correct the problem. He returned to duty and to command the Apollo 14 moon mission in 1971. At 47 years of age, Shepard became the oldest and fifth person to walk on the moon-- the only astronaut of the original Mercury 7 to do so. Many still remember Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell bouncing around on the moon's low-gravity surface. They spent 33.5 hours collecting rock samples and then Shepard surprised everyone by pulling out two golf balls and a club. He was first to hit a golf shot on the moon, and the longest one in history-- over a mile.

(Describer) It's shown on television.

Shepard was promoted to admiral before finally retiring from the navy and NASA. He became the first millionaire astronaut, leading several successful businesses until he died in 1998. Although he resisted the term, Alan Shepard lives on as a true American hero. He is remembered for the character he displayed to the world-- humility, diligence, and bravery. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Alan Shepard. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

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On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard made a 15-minute suborbital flight in the Freedom 7 spacecraft, which reached an altitude of 115 miles. The flight came 23 days after Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin became the first human to travel in space, but Shepard’s flight energized U.S. space efforts and made him a national hero. Part of the "World Explorers" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 6 minutes

World Explorers
Episode 1
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
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Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Episode 9
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Episode 10
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