Friday, September 19, 2014

America's First Man in Space

America's First Man in Space:
By Alan B. Shepard, Jr., aboard the “Freedom 7” Mercury spacecraft and Deke Slayton
2013 by Dale Alan Bryant

  I picked up this little cherry of a book - mint condition, first edition hard back of Mercury astronauts Alan B. Shepard, Jr. and Deke Slayton's book "Moon Shot" at a thrift store on Main St. The penciled-in price was $3.75. I already own a soft cover edition of this book but I couldn't resist thumbing through it anyway...
  Alan Shepard was the first American to enter space during a Mercury sub-orbital flight. Deke Slayton, who had been temporarily grounded because of an inner-ear infection was made chief of operations. Shepard's flight lasted 15 minutes from launch at Cape Canaveral, to the edge of space, to splashdown in the Atlantic in his Mercury 7 space capsule, Freedom 7. Alan was one of the original 'Mercury 7' astronauts, along with John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, whose full-orbital flight in his Friendship 7 spacecraft followed Shepard's. He was able to achieve 3 complete orbits in six hours.
  I was six years old and standing in the twilight on my front doorstep at 56 AMVET's Ave., Falmouth, Cape Cod, when Glenn's star-like, Friendship 7, gleaming by reflected sunlight, passed overhead at dusk that night. I witnessed two of his orbits, approximately 90 minutes apart. How could I have possibly known that just two years later I'd be sitting in the pilot's seat of that very spacecraft...
  The Friendship 7 has been on display at the Smithsonian's Institution's National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D. C., since just after Glenn's flight. At the age of eight, while visiting the Smithsonian, (pre-National Air & Space Museum), I was invited by one of the museum staff to board the Friendship 7 and spend some time in the pilot's seat - the only seat in the tiny one-man Mercury spacecraft. Once seated, I distinctly recall a mild claustrophobic sensation--the pale-green steel panels that constituted the ceiling, walls and floor of the cockpit, all being uncomfortably close-by; the hatch--which could only be opened from the outside--just inches from my right shoulder; the main control panel with its small, green circular CRT screen just elbow's reach in front of me; the infinite number of lighted rocker panels, momentary switches and toggles wrapping around both sides of the cockpit enveloping my eight-year-old frame. No one is any longer allowed inside the spacecraft--it is encased in a 1 1/2-inch-thick protective acrylic shell for its preservation.
  As for Shepard and Slayton's book, "Moon Shot", imagine my surprise when I opened up the front cover and saw that, on the first leaf, was a bookplate signed by Shepard, indicating that this particular copy was part of Shepard's personal library that was eventually released by his wife, Louise. I had Shepard's signature verified and have seen copies of this book signed in different places among its pages at auction between $950 and $15,000, according to condition on eBay. Happily, my copy is in mint condition but will never appear in an eBay listing--I wouldn't part with this volume at any price.
 "Moon Shot" is about the the American Space Program, from the first Mercury and Gemini mission, to the Apollo missions that actually landed on the moon. All three missions were geared toward this end. The book takes you through the daily lives of the astronauts of the original Mercury 7, the drama, the humor, disappointment, the trial and error, Missions that almost didn't get off the ground and on and on. It's their human story, complete with original dialog throughout... The human story of American space exploration.
 Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft has been immaculately restored and is, at the time of this writing, on loan to the J.F.K. Library in Boston, since its arrival in Dec., 2012 and will remain at the library until December 15, 2015. It isn't easy getting to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in D. C., for most Northern New Englanders to view these and other icons of the golden years of America's Space Program--like Gus Grissom's Mercury spacecraft, Liberty Bell 7 --which spent 45 years at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, Grissom perished along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee in the fire that consumed the Apollo 1 command module while it sat atop the launch pad, its pressurized cockpit under 300% pure oxygen, during a routine flight test. They were unable to escape the capsule - it's hatch could not be opened from the inside.
   These were the first few of the original Mercury 7 test pilots and astronauts of America's first committed space program. What they gave in the line of duty, they gave to the men and women and children of a starry-eyed America. John Glenn had piloted the "Friendship 7" in a three-orbit flight in 1962, the first American astronaut to achieve orbit at the ripe old age of 41. He returned to space at age 77, making him the oldest astronaut in history aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
   It's so good to know that it's just a day trip to Boston's J.F.K. Library. Don't let this one slide away from you--log onto the J.F.K. Library's website for further information.

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