05/05/2011 04:45 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2011

Freedom 7: 50 Years Ago Today, the First American in Space (VIDEO)

Fifty years ago today, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, twenty-three days after Russian Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth. In fifteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds, the Mercury capsule rose 116.5 miles -- jettisoning its rockets on the way up -- before turning nose and heat shields down for the return. It traveled just over three miles from its launch pad, and reached a top speed of 5,180 mph, a top force of 11Gs. Despite following the Russians, the flight was history-making, marking the first time a human had maneuvered a spacecraft in space; Gagarin had been only a passenger.

After splashdown, Shepard reported his success with the simple phrase, "Everything is A-Okay" -- astronaut jargon for "all systems okay" -- a term new to non-astronaut Americans. Or perhaps he didn't. When asked later where the term had come from, he responded, "Ask Shorty Powers," the press officer for the first astronauts.

Shepard called the flight "just the first baby step, aiming for bigger and better things" -- a sentiment echoed on the first lunar landing with Neil Armstrong's famous, "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

Ten years later, Shepard would head for the moon on Apollo 14, taking a makeshift six iron with which he whacked the first golf ball in space. The capsules that took him into space returned to earth. Shepard himself returned to earth. But that golf ball never did. Perhaps it's still flying along, or perhaps it's been burnt up in some other atmosphere, reduced to a brief flash that seems like little but is two worlds finding each other in some small way, the first baby step.

Video courtesy of NASA.