Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard climbed into the cramped, one-person Freedom 7 capsule on May 5, 1961, and flew 116 miles to space on top of a converted Redstone missile. He returned to Earth just 15-and-a-half minutes later, becoming the first astronaut in United States history. Our nation now commemorates Shepard’s inaugural flight every year on May 5 as National Astronaut Day, which is a special day for all of us at Sierra Space.
National Astronaut Day is an opportunity to honor the achievements of Americans in space – and look forward to the future – as Sierra Space endeavors to make space travel accessible for all. We want to recognize American astronauts as true national heroes. By sharing some of their “out of this world” experiences, we hope to inspire everyone to reach for the stars. Our mission at Sierra Space is to democratize space travel and help people from all over the world realize a future of living and working in space.
We salute Alan Shepard for being such an inspiring trailblazer. Reflecting on his historic flight, Shepard once said, “I just wanted to be the first one to fly for America, not because I’d end up in the pages of history books.” The astronaut and former Navy test pilot would later command the Apollo 14 mission and become the fifth person in history to walk on the Moon. Flash forward 60 years later and U.S. astronauts continue to make history.
NASA astronaut and five-time flight engineer Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth in March after 355 days, setting the record for the longest single spaceflight ever. He spent almost a full year on the other side of the Kármán Line, demonstrating incredible advancements in space technology that we could only dream about in the era of Shepard’s inaugural flight. Vande Hei offered inspiration to the next generation of astronauts upon his return and said, “I want my 355 days to be remembered as the record that got broken. I am really looking forward to the next person doing something longer and getting farther and farther away and exploring more.”
Vande Hei’s NASA colleague Christina Koch spent 328 days in space, returning home in February 2020 to shatter the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman. Koch traveled an amazing 140 million miles as she orbited the Earth 5,200 times. She also spent more than 42 hours conducting spacewalks, including the first all-female iteration with fellow astronaut Jessica Weir.
Sierra Space is proud to have two accomplished astronauts on our own executive leadership team: Dr. Janet Kavandi and Steve Lindsey. Lindsey is a veteran of five space shuttle flights – two as pilot and three as commander – and logged over 1,500 hours in space. Kavandi, a PhD chemist, spent 33 days in space and orbited Earth 535 times. These distinguished leaders are both inductees in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
At Sierra Space, Janet and Steve have set their sights on ambitious goals: to enable the next generation of astronauts and make going to space a real possibility for more people than ever before. Both envision a future where so many people live and work in space that the concepts of shattering duration records and a “hall of fame” are obsolete. For National Astronaut Day, we asked Janet what qualities make for an excellent astronaut:
“The number one trait is to be a team player. You embrace the crew as your family in space. When you work so closely together, you become like brothers and sisters. There are risks, and you must place your lives in each other’s hands. You do everything in your power to keep one another safe and to help each other succeed. The crew is passionately committed to mission success.”
We asked Steve, who was also Chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office for three years, what advice he would give to newly-minted astronauts:
“I would always tell them to ‘make some memories in your mind.’ You’re in space to work and to accomplish the mission. That’s the whole reason you’re there. But while you’re in space, take some mental pictures. Remember what it looked like the first time you looked down at Earth. We’ve got great cameras, but photos don’t do it justice. Remember what it felt like to see a famous city or look down at your hometown from space.”
If these astronauts inspire you on this National Astronaut Day – and you share our mission to make space accessible to all – then please consider applying for a position or internship with Sierra Space today. You can also follow up on social media to discover more about our mission to build a platform in space to benefit life on Earth.