Alan B. Shepherd became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. He made a sub-orbital flight lasting 15 minutes aboard the Freedom 7 and reached an altitude of 116 miles in space.
A few weeks earlier, on April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The space race had officially begun.
Alan Shepherd, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a World War II veteran, became one of NASA's first seven astronauts in 1959. Affected by Meniere's syndrome, he was grounded from flying from 1963 until 1969 when he had surgery to correct the problem. In 1971, the 47-year-old Shepherd commanded Apollo 14 and was the fifth man to walk on the moon.