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Astronaut Alan Shepard's Last Nights On Earth Before Mercury-Redstone 3

By Wesley Fenlon

A NASA flight surgeon tracked Shepard's every activity in the days before he became the first American in space.

Ever imagine what your last 24 hours on Earth would be like, the day before you climbed into a rocket bound for space? Would it be a flurry of last-minute activity and checks, or the calm before a storm that lifted you out of the Earth's atmosphere? Back in 1961, at least, it was mostly the latter. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal discovered old reports from the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission in NASA's archives, which detail the three days leading up to Alan Shepard's historic mission to space.

Shepard was the first American to leave the planet, and the second behind Yuri Gagarin. Unsurprisingly, NASA closely regimented his schedule in the 72 hours leading up to launch. He stayed at a NASA facility, away from most people, to make sure he didn't come down with a last-minute cold or virus. A personal chef prepared all of his meals, which were pretty ordinary--NASA didn't want to take a chance of upsetting his stomach. Orange juice, scrambled eggs, and so on. Crisp Canadian bacon does sound a bit weird, though.

Photo credit: NASA

Here's an interesting tidbit, though--not only was Shepard given identical meals for those three days, but he was also a bit of a test subject. Other people were fed the same meals, and another meal was kept refrigerated. If Shepard exhibited even the slightest upset stomach after eating, they would've had several controls and a leftover meal to scrutinize for its unfortunate gastrointestinal side effects.

Also: coffee was a no-no in those last 24 hours. Madrigal quotes the report as saying "No coffee was permitted during the 24-hour period preceding the flight because of its tendency to inhibit sleep. No coffee was permitted for breakfast on launch morning because of its diuretic properties."

When Shepard was at last suited up and prepared for launch, his electrodes must have been easy to attach. As Madrigal discovered, "The sensor locations have been previously marked on all Mercury pilots by the use of a tiny (about 2 millimeters in diameter) tattooed dot at each of the four electrode sites."

Check out The Atlantic for a few more tidbits, including Shepard's bedtime the night before launch and the long line of physicians who checked him over for hours after he safely returned to Earth.