By Bart Jansen, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Alan Shepard never became a household name like fellow astronauts John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and Neil Armstrong, the first to walk on the moon.
But 50 years ago - on May 5, 1961 - Shepard became the first American to reach space at a time of heightened Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union.
He later became one of only a dozen men to walk on the moon, where he hit a golf shot that became perhaps the most memorable moment of the Apollo 14 mission he commanded.
Kennedy Space Center, where both those missions were launched, will celebrate the anniversary of Shepard's first flight as one of the key moments in human spaceflight, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.
"We should celebrate it," said Bolden, who flew on four shuttle missions. "We should really pay attention to what we did in those historic days."
Shepard died in 1998. On Wednesday, the U.S. Postal Service will unveil a stamp honoring the Mercury program and Shepard's historic launch in a ceremony at the Rocket Garden of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter and members of Shepard's family will join Bolden at the unveiling and at a 50th anniversary ceremony Thursday at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
In a ceremony April 28 at the Naval Academy, where Shepard graduated in 1944, NASA honored him with an Ambassador of Exploration Award. Shepard's family gave the award - a moon rock mounted for public display - to the Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Md.
Shepard's 15-minute flight as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts didn't reach orbit, as Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had done three weeks earlier and as Glenn did nine months later.
But Shepard became the first American in space aboard a Redstone rocket named Freedom 7, by flying 116 miles away from Earth and 303 miles from the launch pad.
The flight had as much cultural as scientific impact.
Gagarin's orbit on April 12, 1961 provoked questions about America's technological competence. Shepard's flight was seen as a reply to that accomplishment and a way to put behind the memory of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17.
"He was significant symbolically more than anything else," said Roger Launius, a historian at the National Air and Space Museum. "In the context of this Cold War rivalry, it was really significant."
President John F. Kennedy called Shepard after he was taken on board the aircraft carrier that retrieved him from the ocean.
In an interview with officials at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Shepard said of the call, "It was a surprise to me as an individual, and the first of many surprises, really, which comprised not only the president's reaction to the manned space program, but the public's reaction as well."
Kennedy later proposed that the U.S. send men to the moon before the end of the decade.
"We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful," Kennedy said.
Shepard commanded Apollo 14, a nine-day mission in 1971 that collected 93 pounds of moon rocks and conducted seismic studies. Fellow astronaut Stuart Roosa took hundreds of seeds from a variety of trees to the moon and brought them back to plant on Earth.
But the mission's iconic image showed Shepard using a makeshift golf club to hit "a little sand-trap shot" to demonstrate the low gravity. Shepard had fashioned the club from the head of a Wilson six-iron and a collapsible rod used to collect lunar samples.
Shepard exaggerated the distance of his second shot - "Miles and miles and miles" -after shanking his first attempt.
Despite his exuberance, historians at the NASA symposium said the golfing exhibition fueled skepticism about the costliness of the space program during the 1970s.
"Hitting the golf ball did not do a good job at demonstrating the profundity of this effort," said James Spiller, associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It kind of provided a lot of the late-night talk-show parodying and cynicism with the space program."