Happy birthday, first American spaceflight

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On this date in 1961, Alan Shepard boarded NASA's Mercury-Redstone 3 (renamed the Freedom 7 by Shepard to honor the members of Astronaut Group 1) at Cape Canaveral and rocketed 101.2 miles into suborbital flight, making Shepard the first U.S. citizen in space. The ride lasted 15 minutes before the capsule returned to Earth near the Bahamas (not bad!). Naturally Shepard was lionized for this achievement, but the man himself tended to downplay whatever status it granted him.

"I just wanted to be the first one to fly for America," Shepard told a reporter in 1991. "Not because I'd end up in the pages of history books."

The New Hampshire native would go on to spend nearly 10 hours in space, even hitting a few golf balls on the moon. Shepard retired from astronautin' in 1974 and went on to a successful career in the corporate world. A battle with leukemia felled Alan in 1998, but his spirit, his achievements and his winning smile all live on.

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