Nothing thrills the masses like space travel.
A few names epitomise the mid 20th Century space race. One of them is Alan Bartlett “Al” Shepard, Jr. (November 18, 1923 – July 21, 1998). Alan B Shepard was the first American in space. And it was huge deal because the flight was broadcast on the TV.
When on May 5, 1961, Alan B Shepard was strapped into the the Freedom 7 spacecraft, millions tuned in. He was launched by one of former Nazi Werner Von Braun’s Redstone rockets on a ballistic trajectory suborbital flight.
He was cool. As delays took hold – and his space suit filled with his own urine – he told Mission Control: “I’ve been in here more than three hours. I’m a hell of a lot cooler than you guys. Why don’t you just fix your little problem and light this candle?”
He rose to an altitude of 116 statute miles.
Around 15 minutes later, he landed in the Atlantic Ocean.
Three weeks before that flight, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first man to fly into space.
…37-year-old Cdr Shepard of the US Navy was launched into sub-orbital flight from Cape Canaveral in Florida in a Mercury 3 capsule attached to a Redstone rocket. He travelled 115 miles into space and landed in the Atlantic just 15 minutes later. His first words after he was picked up by a helicopter were: “Boy, what a ride!” President Kennedy telephoned to congratulate the astronaut a few minutes after he was flown to aircraft carrier Lake Champlain.
In a veiled reference to last month’s achievement by the USSR’s space programme, the president said: “This is an historic milestone in our own exploration into space. But America still needs to work with the utmost speed and vigour in the further development of our space programme.”
During the flight, Cdr Shepard maintained constant communication with ground control. He opened his periscope, reported on cloud cover over Florida and North Carolina and commented, “Oh, what a beautiful view.”
As he re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the experienced test pilot was subjected to 11 times the force of gravity and travelled at 5,100mph but managed to report that he was “OK”.
The space capsule, which appears undamaged except for some heat scars, is being returned to Cape Canaveral for examination.
…once I learned the name Alan Shepard I treasured it, in part because he spelled his first name just as I spelled mine, and in part because hardly anyone else seemed to know who he was. This seemed very odd to me: Shouldn’t The First American in Space be a title of great honor? It was only years later, when I read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, that I came to understand the complex national pathologies — the multi-front competition with the Soviet Union, the problem of knowing who your celebrated gladiators might be as long as your war stays Cold — that had produced the idolization of Glenn and the (comparative) marginalization of Shepard.\
Woolf set the tone of what had gone:
Even in California, where it was very early, highway patrolmen reported a strange and troubling sight. For no apparent reason drivers, hordes of them, were pulling off the highways and stopping on the shoulders, as if controlled by Mars. The patrolmen were slow in figuring it out, because they did not have AM radios. But the citizenry did, and they had become so excited as the countdown progressed at Cape Canaveral, so ravenously curious as to what would happen to the mortal hide of Alan Shepard when they fired the rocket, it was too much. Even the simple act of driving overloaded the nervous system. They stopped; they turned up the volume; they were transfixed by the prospect of the lonely volunteer about to be exploded into hash.
This tiny lad, up on the tip of that enormous white bullet, appeared to have about one chance in ten of living through it. Over the three weeks since the great Soviet triumph of Gagarin’s flight, one terrible event had followed another. The United States had sent in a puppet army of Cuban exiles to conquer the Soviets’ puppet regime in Cuba, and instead suffered the humiliation that became known as the Bay of Pigs. This had nothing directly to do with the space flight, of course, but it heightened the feeling that this was not the time to be trying brave and desperate deeds in the contest with the Soviets. The sad truth was, our boys always botch it. Eight days after that, on April 25, NASA had another big test of an Atlas rocket. It was supposed to carry a dummy astronaut into orbit, but it went off course and had to be blown up by remote control after forty seconds. The explosion nearly wiped out Gus Grissom, who was following the rocket’s ascent as chase pilot in an F-106. Three days after that, April 28, a so-called Little Joe rocket with a Mercury capsule on top of it went off on another crazy trajectory and had to be aborted after thirty-three seconds. Both of these were tests of the Mercury-Atlas system, which would be used for orbital flights, and they had nothing to do with the Mercury-Redstone system, which Shepard would be riding—but it was far too late to make fine points. Our rockets always blow up and our boys always botch it.
His face was pointed straight up toward the sky, but he couldn’t see it because he had no window. All he had were two little portholes, one on either side, above his head. The true pilot’s window and hatch wouldn’t be ready until the second Mercury flight. He might as well have been inside a box. A greenish fluorescent light filled the capsule. He could see outside only through the periscope window on the panel in front of him. The window was round, about a foot in diameter, in the middle of the panel. Outside, in the dark, the launch crewmen on the gantry could see the lens of the periscope if he pointed it their way. They kept walking in front of it and giving him big grins. Their faces filled the window. There was a wide-angle distortion, so that their noses protruded about eight feet out in front of their ears. When they grinned, they seemed to have more teeth than a perch. Once the dawn broke he could look out of the periscope and turn it this way and that, and see the Atlantic over here… and some people down on the ground… although the perspectives were a bit strange, because he was lying on his back and the periscope window was not terribly big and the angles were unusual. But then the sun grew brighter and brighter and he kept getting bursts of sunlight in the periscope window, lying on his back like this and looking up, and so he reached up with his left hand and clicked a gray filter into place. That helped a great deal, even though it neutralized most colors. Now that the hatch had been bolted shut, Shepard could hear practically nothing from the outside world except the voices that came over the headset inside his helmet.
He’d journey into space again aboard Apollo 14 between January 31 and February 9, 1971. In the compnay of Stuart A. Roosa, command module pilot, and Edgar D. Mitchell, lunar module pilot. Maneuvering their lunar module, he trod on the moon – and played golf.
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