May 5, 1961 Let's compare: Shepard's little Mercury capsule wasn't much next to Yuri Gagarin's Vostok. The U.S.'s squirty Redstone booster (another technological descendant of Germany's WW II V-2 missiles) was no match for the Russians' hulking R-7 (an ICBM with a disturbingly massive amount of muscle). Moreover, Shepard's spaceflight was a popgun suborbital a 15-minute parabolic lob that took off in Florida and plopped down in the Atlantic while Gagarin's was a full, 108-minute orbit that required the meticulous firing of retro-rockets to bring him home. Still, an American astronaut had touched space. It was something, anyway.