Archive Discoveries: NASA’s Distinguished Service Award for ‘Freedom 7’

During the early days of NASA and height of the space race in the 1960s, the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration loaned two of our staff photographers — Dean Conger and Luis Marden to NASA to document their efforts to send a man into space.

left: streaks of light on a flight simulation chair show its tumbling motion. .  center: Tense engineers listen to the countdown for the Pioneer IV rocket, shown AT RIGHT blasting into space.   left photograph by dean conger, center & right photographs by luis marden.

On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American in space, and Dean Conger was there to capture the footage of his historic Freedom 7 flight.  Freedom 7 was America’s first manned venture into space and lasted a total of about 15 minutes. This test paved the way for future manned space flights, and at the end of the decade, the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first two humans on the moon.

this video clip documents President John F. Kennedy awarding astronaut Alan Shepard with nasa’s distinguished service award for the freedom 7 flight.  (click photo to view video).  photograph by dean conger.

For more information about the Freedom 7 mission, please read: “The Flight of Freedom 7” by Carmault B. Jackson, Jr. M.D.  AND. “The Pilot’s Story: Astronaut Shepard’s Firsthand Account of His Flight” both in the September 1961 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

For more information on National Geographic and the Space Program, please check out the NG Library + Archives Timeline.

Below is a slide-show of some of the best NASA-related images in the National Geographic photo archives, shot by Dean Conger and Luis Marden.

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Meet the Author
Karen Buckley Cerka is Director of the Film and Audiovisual Archive and has worked with the Archive since 2008. The Film and Audiovisual Archive dates back to 1901 and houses 770,000 hours of viewing material. Highlights include Louis Leakey and William Beebe, Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.