50 Years Ago, We (Tensely) Put The Second Man In Space

50 Years Ago, We (Tensely) Put The Second Man In Space

This week’s situation room photo will likely be marked as one of history’s most famous – fraught with anxiety. But there’ve been other American rooms filled with tension. When the US put Alan Shepard into space, it was serious business.

Russia had already beat the US outside of the atmosphere. The Cold War stakes were high. And, despite the precedent, this was only the second time in history that a human would be going into space – not exactly a casual undertaking, especially following a string of NASA launchpad disasters. These unpublished photos from LIFE’s archives show the emotions rippling through everyone involved in the launch, which sent Shepard 116 miles upward into space, before splashing back down after only 15 minutes.

It wasn’t the most involved space mission, but its symbolism and technical enormity was immense – America could put a citizen in space without blowing them up. We could do what Russia could do. Not exactly on the same emotional plane as killing bin Laden, but a similar sort of national back-weight, to be sure.

Though nobody felt the same pressure as Shepard. Incredible stoic hard-ass that he was, he wryly replied the following to a reporter asking about his thoughts while preparing for takeoff: “It’s a sobering feeling to know that one’s safety is determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

For the rest of the gallery, head over to LIFE.