"Light this Candle"

It’s been a big week for the USA.

First, American troops raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and killed al Qaeda’s leader.

And today is the 50th anniversary of America’s first manned space flight. On May 5th, 1961, Alan Shepard lifted off from  Cape Canaveral for a 15 minute flight that got America on the board against the hated Soviets, whose hero Yuri Gagarin had not only already flown in space but had orbited the earth some weeks earlier.

While Shepard’s flight was only a jog compared to Gagarin’s, it had plenty of drama. The US was trailing the Soviets in rocket technology and the previous two launches (one with a dummy astronaut) had gone off course and subsequently  had to  be destroyed.  No one at NASA could say for certain that Shepard might not go the way of his mannequin predecessor.

In fact, Shepard’s flight was delayed three days as NASA technicians tried to solve potential flight problems.

Finally, on the morning of May 5, Shepard was strapped into the Mercury 7 capsule and sat through hours of delays – delays so long that he ended up urinating in his space suit. After one last delay was mentioned, Shepard, known both for icy cool and a wild side (he drove a Corvette and had a reputation as a party animal), spat out those famous words as only a military officer could: “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

The techs resumed the countdown and America soon had its first astronaut hero.

Shepard went on to parlay his “first American in space” status into millions of dollars in earnings.

But even cooler, he’s also the first guy ever to do this: