LIFE magazine, 12 May 1961, cover

On 5 May 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American in space. His 15-minute suborbital hop took him to a height of 116 miles at more than 2 km (1.5 miles) per second before splashdown near Bermuda, 302 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral.

“Everything AOK [all perfect]. . Dye marker out,” Shepard said after the capsule hit the water. Only a half hour after liftoff, the space pioneer came triumphantly aboard the carrier Lake Champlain after the pickup helicopter had deposited his capsule on deck. His first words were “Man, what a ride!”

Variants of the present lot featured in National Geographic, September 1961, ppg. 438-441

While the whole nation watched with a gripping sense of personal and emotional in- volvement, Shepard soared off into space for the most grueling ride any American has ever taken. The man and the machine returned safely to Earth. Then, apparently unaffected by the extreme forces of his flight, Shepard trotted easily across the carrier deck with the manner of the fighter pilot he used to be rather than that of a national hero. But Alan Shepard was a heroic figure. He did not fly as far, fast or high as Russia’s Yuri Gagarin. However, he controlled the flight of his capsule, which Gagarin did not, and carried out his fantastic mission under the relentless pressure of television and worldwide publicity.