Tuesday, February 6, 2018

This Day in History


In 1961, Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel in space. Note I didn't day first human; that honor went to Yuri Gagarin (damn Rooskie!) Unlike Gagarin, Shepard did get to manually control his craft, so that was kind of another first. And his feat did give Americans hope that this space program might be worth spending money on, President Kennedy using the occasion to push for a manned trip to the moon. Shepard's achievement was overshadowed about a year later when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, rather than merely go up and down as Shepard did. Nevertheless, Shepard assumed he'd be in space, and was in fact scheduled to be the lead astronaut in the upcoming Gemini program (in which a capsule carried two astronauts rather than one.) Unfortunately, his health gave out. He began experiencing dizzy spells and nausea, which he thought at first he might keep to himself. Why let NASA worry about something like that? But then it occurred to him that dizzy spells and nausea in outer space could be fatal, and he 'fessed up to his superiors. A doctor checked him out, and found he had Menier's disease, in which fluid builds up in the inner ear. Shepard was grounded. In the meantime, the Space Program went on. Gemini soon gave way to Apollo. A horrible accident left three astronauts dead in an initial launch pad accident, but, despite that tragedy, two men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren, eventually walked on the moon in what became a worldwide media event (though I'm not sure the Russians watched it; they may have had their sets tuned to the Bolshoi Ballet instead.) Shepard may have seemed like an astrohas-been at that point. 

Medical science to the rescue! By 1969, a doctor had come up with a surgical cure for Menier's disease. Shepard checked into a hospital under an assumed name, had a hole or something drilled in his ear, and the dizziness was no more. He was back on active duty. But how soon could he go to the moon?




Alan Shepard was a character. It's said that I Dream of Jeannie producer Sidney Sheldon based  Roger Healey (played by Bill Daily) after him. But Shepard didn't some sitcom scribe to come up with lines for him.  When an unmanned rocket that was supposed to be the prototype of one that would take him and other members of the Mercury 7 into the cosmos blew up in the sky during a test run, Shepard turned to a stunned John Glenn and said, "Well, I'm glad they got that one out of the way." After his historic first flight into space, Shepard was asked what he was thinking about when he sat upon the giant rocket waiting to blast off. His reply: "The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder." Funny guy, but there were some things about Shepard that others, particularly Glenn, didn't find so funny. Sidney Sheldon might have. Sheldon eventually put sitcoms behind him and became a best-selling author of racy novels, and Alan Shepard would have fit right in one of those books as he was a notorious party animal and womanizer. In fact, Shepard, who had a wife waiting for him at home, almost lost the first-American-in-space gig to the straight-laced Glenn because NASA officials feared a sex scandal. That scandal never happened, but having this playboy once again represent the space program must have given those officials pause. And then there was the little problem of experience. Shepard, grounded at the time, was not among the 32 astronauts originally tapped for the Apollo program and had spent no time training for it. Yet he was eventually chosen to command what everyone thought would be the fourth manned trip to the moon. I suspect public relations had something to do with it.

The first manned moon landing, Apollo 11, had the rapt attention of the American public. The second manned landing, Apollo 12, the attention was a bit less rapt. Unlike Neil Armstrong's black-and-white walk on the moon, this one was supposed to be broadcast back to Earth in color, but the camera went on the blink after it was accidentally pointed to the sun, and so it became a monochromatic rerun. What would have been the third manned landing, Apollo 13, did indeed have the rapt attention of the American public, but for the wrong reason. An oxygen tank exploded, raising the prospect of the three astronauts dying in space. Fortunately, they didn't, as they skedaddled back to Earth in time but without having visited the moon (at least they got a good Ron Howard movie out of it.) In the meantime, the Nixon Administration and Congress had started thinking about scaling back the expensive space program soon after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldren, and Micheal Collins splashed down in the Pacific. Now, there were plenty of valid scientific reasons to keep returning to the moon, and it's not like NASA could easily (or cheaply) go anywhere else, but how do you convey that to taxpayers? By entertaining them, which was right up inveterate cutup Alan Shepard's alley.



On February 6, 1971, 47 years ago today, Apollo 14 Commander Alan Shepard conducted the following scientific experiment on the moon, to the rapt attention of the American public:



 You might have heard Shepard say the ball went "miles and miles".




Not quite. It was actually about 200 meters, or 219 yards. What looks like a stick right near the golf ball is actually a metal rod that fellow astronaut Ed Mitchell, trying to get in on the fun, threw as a javelin.

Nevertheless, I, for one, am impressed by Alan Shepard's achievement. After all...



...I can't even get the ball to go through the damn windmill!

13 comments:

  1. Fly me to the moon! I’ve made it through that windmill!!! Great post. I didn’t know any of the good dirt about Alan Shepard.

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  3. Mitchell, here's something that ran in the British newspaper The Telegraph two days ago:

    "The marriage of Mercury Seven astronaut Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space, and his wife Louise - nicknamed 'Saint Louise' for her composure - was among the few [astronauts marriages] that survived, despite dalliances that included him attending swingers parties and picking up a prostitute in a Mexican border town during a Nasa trip to California prior to his 1961 mission.

    A livid John Glenn, a fellow Mercury Seven astronaut who went on to become the first American to orbit the Earth, was called on by Nasa to talk a newspaper out of running the story and incriminating photographs."

    Mrs. Shepard knew about Alan's extracurricular activities, but stayed with him because "I'm the only one he really loves."

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  4. I can see why his wife was called "Saint Louise."

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    1. Debra, still waiting confirmation from the Vatican.

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  5. Great post today. I remember all of this like it was yesterday. I was so excited by the space program still am.

    cheers, parsnip and mandibles

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    1. I was still in grade school during the space program's heyday, parsnip, but I remember the teacher rolling TV set into the classroom so we could watch a blast-off. That was exciting.

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    2. Don't fall for a man in a spacesuit, John. He'll leave you sitting at home on Earth while he's doing God-knows-what in Alpha Centauri.

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  7. I couldn't imagine not being able to control your ship manually. Especially back then and Soviet stupidity. Soviet leadership didn't realize that men needed real suits to survive radiation when they sent them on a nuclear sub.

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    1. Adam, was Stalin still alive when the Soviets sent men on a nuclear sub without radiation suits? Maybe that's how carried out one of his purges.

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