Friday, May 17, 2024

Insight: Moon beams and big dreams

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

I sat in Miss Weaver’s second-grade classroom that day totally in awe of what was happening and the possibilities that a special event held for all Americans.

NASA astronaut Alan Shepard aboard
Freedom 7 takes off from Cape
Canaveral in Florida on May 5, 1961
on his way to becoming the first
American in space.
The date was Friday May 5, 1961, and it started out like any other normal school day at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Brighton, New York. Along with my classmates, we were quietly reading at our desks about 10:15 a.m. when there was a knock at our classroom door, and a priest wheeled in a large portable television set.

Miss Weaver instructed us to put down our books and watch the television because a special event was about to happen that we would remember for the rest of our lives. It was live coverage of the first-ever attempt to launch an American astronaut into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The astronaut aboard the spacecraft called Freedom 7 was Alan Shepard, one of the original U.S. Mercury astronauts. It was the first time I heard NASA’s Mission Control Countdown tick away “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, liftoff.”

We all cheered as the rocket took off and eventually reached a suborbital altitude of 115 miles. Shepard’s spacecraft traveled downrange for 302 nautical miles from Cape Canaveral. During the flight, Shepard was able to observe the Earth from space and tested his altitude control system. He also was able to turn the spacecraft around so its heat shield could protect him during atmospheric re-entry and tested Freedom 7’s retrorockets.

The flight itself lasted for 15 minutes and 28 seconds and reached a speed of 5,180 mph before Freedom 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Bahamas. Our class continued watching the recovery as U.S. Navy frogmen retrieved Shepard and Freedom 7 and flew them by helicopter to the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain.

With his successful flight, Alan Shepard became the first American in space and by 11:30 a.m., the large portable television was wheeled out of our classroom and our class got ready to go to the cafeteria for lunch.

It was a significant milestone for this nation and a few days later I was watching the evening news and saw where President John F. Kennedy welcomed Shepard to the White House. He presented him with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in a ceremony and during his remarks, the president also saluted the work done by so many others for Shepard’s flight to be a success.

For days after that, all the members of our second-grade class pretended to be astronauts while out on the school playground. By the end of that month, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and challenged the nation to claim a leadership role in space exploration and to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s decade.

It was a source of pride and common purpose for Americans and each subsequent NASA manned space flight became must-see television, no matter what age you were. Americans were ecstatic when Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon in July 1969 and were worried and fearful when an accident crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft on its mission to the moon but miraculously made it back to earth safely in April 1970.

Shepard had been grounded by NASA following his 1961 spaceflight after suffering from an ear ailment called Meniere’s disease but was restored to flight status following surgery to alleviate the issue. He led the Apollo 14 mission to the moon and at age 47 became the oldest astronaut to walk on the moon, and the only one of the original seven Mercury astronauts to make it there.

In 1994, my life came full circle when I met Alan Shepard while he was at a promotional event in Titusville, Florida. Shepard and two journalists, Jay Barbee and Howard Benedict, had written a book called “Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon.” I got to spend a few moments speaking to Alan Shepard and I told him about how fascinated members of our second-grade class were that morning in 1961 to watch his Freedom 7 flight.

He told me that he felt all Americans were part of his mission that day and he thanked me for watching. Shepard died in 1998 from leukemia and I was saddened to hear that news.

When I landed a job working for a newspaper in Laconia, New Hampshire in 2014, on at least several occasions I interviewed and met several people who had grown up in Derry, New Hampshire with Alan Shepard and had attended middle school classes at Oak Street School in Derry with him.

I also interviewed a U.S. Army veteran who resided at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton who had been in the same Boy Scout troop as Alan Shepard. He told me the future astronaut loved building things and enlisted the assistance of his fellow scouts to construct a rowboat.

You never know where life will lead you and I certainly never dreamed sitting in my second-grade classroom in May 1961 that I would some day meet the first American in space. <

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