NASA astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel to space 60 years ago on May 5. The space research organisation honoured Shepard and his mission with a special page on its website. The year 1961 was extremely crucial as the United States and the Soviet Union — the two dominant superpowers at the time — were locked in a race to send the first human to space. With the Soviet Union launching the first artificial satellite called Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, it sparked an unexplored frontier in the Cold War — space. NASA was formed a year later, and on May 5, 1961, Shepard became the first American in space during a suborbital flight aboard his Mercury capsule, Freedom 7.

On Thursday, NASA shared a photo of Shephard on Twitter and wrote: “60 years ago today, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel in space, climbing 116 miles (188 km) above Earth. Shortly after, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to a lunar landing before the end of the decade.”

On its website, NASA stated that the US began working on Project Mercury in 1958 and selected its first batch of astronauts a year later to train them for the space mission. The Soviet, during the same time, began its own efforts, in secret, to plan a space mission. They selected their own team of 20 cosmonauts in 1960 and in April 1961, became the first country to successfully execute a human space-lift programme as a part of which cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin completed a single orbit around the Earth aboard his Vostok capsule.

A month later, Shepard became the first American to travel to space. His brief flight proved to be a stepping stone for the US in the realm of space.

NASA says the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, US, began Project Mercury in 1958 and had three major goals in mind — orbiting a crewed spacecraft, investigating man’s ability to function in space, and safely recovering both spacecraft and crew member.

On May 8, 1961, Shepard arrived at the White House where President Kennedy presented him with the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA’s highest honour. On May 25, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and said the United States should “commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” That commitment, based on the successful, albeit just a 15-minute suborbital spaceflight, led to Apollo 11’s Moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Twitter user Dwayne Todd (@DwayneTodd3) recalled that he “was in grade school” when the event took place. “When this happened, we were all called into an assembly wherein our principal Thomas J. Ultican (a truly dedicated educator) announced the feat emphasising what a significant event it was,” the user wrote on the micro-blogging site.

Another user, Jacqueline (@Jacqcaff16), described Shepherd as a “pioneer and a history maker, paving the way for future astronauts.”

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