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The Right Stuff: Who Was the First American in Space?

The Right Stuff: Read This If You Can't Wait to Find Out Who Makes It to Space First

THE RIGHT STUFF, back, from left: Micah Stock as Deke Slayton, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard, Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn, Colin O'Donoghue as Gordon Cooper, James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter, Sierra Hotel, (Season 1, ep. 101, aired Oct. 9, 2020). photo: National Geographic/Gene Page / Disney+ / Courtesy Everett Collection
Since the beginning of the Space Race – which marked a fierce rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s over which country would pioneer space travel – American astronauts have competed on both an international stage and against each other to be recognised as the "first" in manned space exploration, including being the first man in space. Shortly after a Soviet Union astronaut won the title of "First Man in Space" in 1961, however, the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) finalised their plans to launch their first human spaceflight. For NASA, it wasn't a question of if they were going to send an American to space, but rather a question of of who. Disney+'s The Right Stuff tells the true story of this historic competition between seven American astronauts vying for the opportunity to fly among the stars. If you're watching the series and can't wait to find out who makes it, here's the answer: on May 5, 1961, the race was over, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

In the opening scene of The Right Stuff, we see Alan Shepard (played by Jake McDorman) and John Glenn (played by Patrick J. Adams) – two of the seven competing American astronauts known as the Mercury 7 – going through their morning routines just hours before a historic rocket launch that will send one of them to space with the honour of being the first American to do so. But, out of the two of them, only one of them can be chosen to go – and while the show leaves the decision of who is chosen a mystery in the first few episodes, NASA confirms that confirms that Alan Shepard was chosen to pilot the first 15-minute human spaceflight on May 5th, 1961, effectively crowning him the "First American in Space."

THE RIGHT STUFF, from left: Shannon Lucio as Louise Shepard, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard, Sierra Hotel, (Season 1, ep. 101, aired Oct. 9, 2020). photo: National Geographic/Gene Page / Disney+ / Courtesy Everett Collection

On February 20, 1962, Shepard's on-screen competition John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth and the third American in space. Both men carry historical significance in the story of our country's space exploration, but as The Right Stuff reminds us, they were also everyday people with everyday problems. The story of how they went from pilots to history book legends is just getting started on the Disney+ hit show, and while we already know who won the title of "First Man in Space," we can't wait to follow along and see just how their stories – both individually and collectively – unfold.

Image Source: Everett Collection
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