The First American in Space – and Our Family Connection to This Historic Event

May 5th, 2011, was the 50th anniversary of an event that ultimately led to the United States sending the first man to walk on the moon. That event was Alan Shepard’s 1961 Freedom 7 flight into space.

A bit of historical background

The "Cold War" was a continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, and economic competition between primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies – and the United States and her allies.

The Launch of Freedom 7

Although the chief military forces never engaged in a major battle with each other during this period, they expressed the conflict through military coalitions, strategic conventional force deployments, extensive aid to states deemed vulnerable, proxy wars, espionage, propaganda, conventional and nuclear arms races, appeals to neutral nations, rivalry at sports events, and technological competitions such as the "space race".

Timeline of space race up to time of
Shepard's flight
(Click to enlarge it.)

During the Cold War the United States was in intense competition with the USSR as to which country would lead the world in the space race. As you can see in the partial timeline of space exploration to the left, the USSR had sent the first man into orbit and the U.S. was playing "catch-up" in the eyes of many observers.

This video provides a look at the intense competitiveness of the events of that era. Here are links to a couple of YouTube videos about the Freedom 7 launch:
NASA Film - Freedom 7 - #1
NASA Film - Freedom 7 - #2

Shepard's 1998 New York Times obituary reported his experience as follows:

“On the morning of May 5, 1961, [Alan B. Shepard, Jr.] became an immediate American hero. A lean, crew-cut former Navy test pilot, then 37, he began the day lying on his back in a cramped Mercury capsule atop a seven-story Redstone rocket filled with explosive fuel. After four tense hours of weather and mechanical delays, he was shot into the sky on a 15-minute flight that grazed the fringes of space, at an altitude of 115 miles, and ended in a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean 302 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Though not much by today's [1998] standards, the brief suborbital flight stopped a whole country in its tracks, waiting anxiously at radios and television sets. When the message of success came through -- with a phrase that would enter the idiom, ‘Everything is A-O.K.!’ -- everyone seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief.'

Daniel S. Goldin, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the Shepard flight was ‘a tremendous statement about tenacity, courage and brilliance,’ adding with a tone of lingering awe: ‘He crawled on top of that rocket that had never before flown into space with a person aboard and he did it. That was an unbelievable act of courage.’ “

[Editor’s comment: When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket waiting for liftoff, he reportedly replied, “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.”]

“[Three weeks later] On May 25 [president] Kennedy told Congress, 'This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space. And none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.' '' (Source)

The U.S. puts the first man on the moon

Kennedy’s goal was met, for on July 20, 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. He spoke the historic words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." (Source)

Ten years after his initial flight in Freedom 7, Alan Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 mission and was the fifth person to walk on the moon. During the Applllo mission he planted an American flag on the surface of the moon.


Our family connection to Alan Shepard’s first space flight

In December, 2010, my daughter gave me a collection of information she found in her deceased mother, Sonja’s, belongings. Sonja – my wife in 1961 – still had this 50-year old material from my time in the U.S. Navy. I had no idea the material still existed.

Because Alan Shepard’s flight occurred while I was in the Navy – and the ship I was on played a role in that event – this page of this blog features some of the information provided by my daughter. Why? Because, in retrospect, my small connection with the recovery of the first American in space seems worth recording in this blog’s Family History stories.


Some personal background

The law in the era in which I approached my 18th birthday required every male to register with the Selective Service System at age 18, which made us subject to being drafted into the army.

What little I knew about the army didn’t appeal to me, so while I was still in high school I joined the Navy reserves. It was a six-year commitment that included attending a full-time “boot camp” for several weeks, weekly training meetings during the year, training for weeks at a time during summers, and two years of full-time active service.

The complete photo is too large to fit onto my scanner, but included here are parts of a photo of my boot camp company and me. It's captioned, “Co. A-58 U.S. Naval Reserve, J.J. Duncan, CSC, USN, Co. Cmdr – 30 June 1959, U.S. Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Ill[inois]”. At the time this photo was taken I was 18 years old, married, had just graduated from high school in May, and two weeks later in July I was the father of a son.

As time passed I advanced in grade, ending my two years of active duty as Radarman 3rd Class. This photo of me at that stage of my service was taken with the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, in the background. This was the home port of the USS Lake Champlain, the ship on which I served.


The recovery of the Freedom 7 capsule and Alan Shepard

Crew members of the Lake Champlain seeing the capsule when it became visible as it returned to earth.

 After exiting the capsule following splashdown, Alan Shepard 
is hoisted up in a body harness by a U.S. Marine Sikorsky UH-34D helicopter recovery team of Marine squadron HMM-262 following the first Project Mercury suborbital space flight.

Shepard, along with his spacecraft, was then taken to the Lake Champlain. (Source)

On the way to the ship...


Life magazine, May, 1961

The story made the cover of Life magazine, and the article about it, in part, had this to say about the Freedom 7 launch and Alan Shepard.
(Click to enlarge it).



My personal perspective: How a letter I wrote became a news story

In an article titled "Gary Seaman In On Space Feat", the Gary Post Tribune published the article below on 14 May 1961. I never lived in Gary, but had sent a letter about Shepard's flight to my mother, who then lived in East Gary (now renamed Lake Station), Indiana. She sent the letter and my high school graduation phototo to the newspaper - and they became the basis for the article (click twice to make it readable).



The capsule on the deck of the Lake Champlain after its recovery


Flying home from the ship after the birth of my daughter

Not long after Shepard’s flight, in September, 1961, I was at sea during one of the several-week anti-submarine warfare exercises in which the Lake Champlain was regularly involved. During that cruise I was hand-delivered the message below, which notified me of the birth of my eldest daughter. (Click to enlarge it.)

The Navy responded to her birth by flying me, a lowly seaman, from the ship back to our home base so I could be with my wife, son and new baby. It was a remarkable experience to be flung, like a rock from a slingshot, off the deck of an aircraft carrier.

The plane was designed for utility, not comfort, and once inside the aircraft I could barely move. I liken it to flying in a tin can, for there was no padding on the metal interior – and no luxurious seats. Nonetheless it was exciting and gratifying to get home to meet my new baby daughter!

All in all, 1961 was a meaningful year in the life of this young sailor!


The Naval Base

As a sidebar to the story of Shepard's historic flight, readers may find it interesting to learn a little about the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, Rhode island, the home port of the Lake Champlain. The article below provides a brief glimpse into its history, which dated back to WW II and its role in combatting the presence of German submarines on the east coast.
(Click twice to make it readable.)


The USS Lake Champlain

USS Lake Champlain, CVS 39, Circa 1960 (Click to enlarge it.)

Here's another sidebar to the story of Alan Shepard's flight; it's a brief look at the history of the Lake Champlain, as provided in a handout provided to visitors:


Endowed with the victorious fighting spirit of Commodore Mac Donough's naval triumph on Lake Champlain in the War of 1812 and equipped with some of the most modern weapons for naval warfare, the USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN has served as an ever-ready, powerful guardiari of American principles for almost twenty years.

Commissioned an Essex-type attack carrier (CVA) on June 3, 1945, in Norfolk, Va., the USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN joined the Atlantic Fleet in the latter part of World War II. Shortly after the armistice, she became part of the troop-transporting "Magic Carpet." During this good-will operation, the USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN set an Atlantic crossing speed record by whisking 5,000 GIs from Gibraltar to Virginia in 87 hours, maintaining an average speed of 32 knots over the 3,960 mile course. The "Ghamp," as she was now called, held the coveted speed record' for seven years.

The USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN was reclassified an antisubmarine warfare carrier (CVS) on Aug.1st 1, 1957. Since that time, she has strenuously engaged in NATO exercises and antisubmarine maneuvers throughout the Atlantic. Liberty ports in the, Mediterranean, Northern Europe, the British Isles, Canada, and the Caribbean have played host to the Champmen.

On May 5, 1961, the USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN, as primary recovery ship in the Project Mercury space program, gained world-wide fame when America's first astronaut, Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard, was brought aboard immediately after his dazzling flight through outer space.

The Battle Efficiency "E" was awarded to the USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN on August 16, 1961, for outstanding performance in keen competition against Atlantic Fleet carriers of her class. In addition, her Air and Operations Departments and her Antisubmarine Helicopter Squadron, HS- 5, won "E"s in individual Atlantic Fleet competitions.

In 1962, the LAKE CHAMPLAIN continued her work as one of the ready-duty ASW carriers. With her Air Group embarked and protected by destroyer escorts, she regularly departs her homeport of Quonset Point for duty in the North Atlantic Ocean."


Finally, here's a look at logistical details about the ship, also from the handout mentioned above.

In population and complexity, the USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN is a veritable 'city at sea'. Her chain of command can be compared to that of a municipal government, with the Commanding Officer as the 'Mayor', the Executive Officer as the 'City Manager' and the Chief Master-at-Arms as the 'Chief of Police'.

With a gross displacement of 40,000 tons and a 30 foot draft, the massive 'Champ' (896 feet in length with a 101 foot beam) can be driven through the water at speed in excess of 35 mph with 150,000 shaft horsepower transferred to her four giant 14 ton screws. She is the only 'straight deck' carrier presently in the U. S. fleet.

Working on, above, and below her 862 foot flightdeck are more than 2,000 men who comprise the ship's nine departments (Administration, Air, Dental, Engineering, Gunnery, Medical, Navigation, Operations, and Supply.) She operates with an embarked air group of over 40 antisubmarine aircraft.

Included in the scores of crewmen aboard the "Champ" are expert cooks, cobblers, tailors, barbers, laundrymen, printers, and storekeepers. Ship's Servicemen operate the ship's two variety stores, the soda fountain, and tobacco shop - which tend to the 'civilian' needs of her men. Recreational facilities include a well - stocked athletic gear locker, a weight lifting room, a ship's library, a crew's lounge, a reception lounge for the crew and their guests, and numerous TV sets.

Movies are shown nightly in the wardroom and in the hangar bay which is also the scene of basketball and volleyball games and boxing smokers, recruiting local talent. The 'Champ' also has varsity basketball, boxing, and softball teams which actively participate in many all-Navy tournaments. A case full of trophies attests to their successes. At sea, the 'Champ' publishes a daily newspaper, the 'Nighthawk Express', and operates radio station WVLC, devoted to shipboard news and popular music.

There is a fully-equipped, non-denominational Chapel aboard the 'Champ' which has been the scene of Navy weddings and christenings in addition to a full program of religious services.

Almost 200,000 meals are served monthly aboard the 'Champ'. Her monthly payroll tops the $500,000 mark. With more than 90,000 gallons of fresh water produced daily at sea, water ration days are rarely required.

All her attributes and conveniences only serve to make the USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN a more efficient deadly weapon against enemy submarines. She's a 'city at sea' to protect those on land."


Last revised 7/14/2011
Please refer to the disclaimer on the index page of this blog for a statement regarding the accuracy of - and documentation for - the information presented in this blog.

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