As America marks the golden anniversary of the nation's first steps into space on Thursday, this aerospace journalist recalls how very fortunate he was to have known and interviewed NASA's first space explorer.
On the heels of Russia launching the first human into space and returning him safely, NASA sped up work in the weeks that followed to launch astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. aboard a tiny capsule.
His cannonball launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida gave Americans a much needed boost following the Soviets arrival in space three weeks earlier.
Shepard's suborbital flight lasted 16 minutes, and gave him the distinction as the first American to journey into space, launching the United States into the space race.
At 9:34 am EDT on May 5, 1961, Navy commander Shepard rocketed from Launch Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral aboard the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7, and up to an altitude 116.5 statue miles. And, like a cannonball, came splashing down 303 statue miles east of the Cape.
As the years passed, Shepard would walk on the moon during Apollo 14 in 1971, before retiring from NASA and the U.S. Navy in 1974.
During the 1990's, Shepard served as President of the Mercury Seven Foundation based at the Astronaut Hall of Fame near the Kennedy Space Center.
While there, this radio and print reporter enjoyed working under the former astronaut in pubic affairs at the Hall of Fame and with Space Camp Foundation. The Astronaut Hall of Fame is a treasure trove housing great mementos and rare photos from the early human space flights and thru the space shuttle program.
In a meeting with former Associated Press space journalist Howard Benedict's office, I recall talking with the two about their new book Moon Shot, which detailed the early years before and during those first Mercury flights.
Both men gave me words of inspiration, and later signed a hard copy first edition for my aerospace library.
In 1995, this space reporter enjoyed a candid conversation with Alan Shepard, sharing his thoughts about the space program of the time. And, after all these years, his words echo true in 2011 as it did then.
Charles Atkeison: How does the space program today differ from what you experienced during the 1960's and into the early 1970's? Do we still have a focus for what we want to do at NASA?
Alan Shepard: I think as far as NASA's concerned, yes. The difference as far as the general public's concerned is that the pure excitement of the early days is gone because, "so we've done that. What do we do tomorrow?", kind of routine. The fact that the public in general is excited about exploration made the lunar mission a very well recognized, well appreciated phase.
The folks that are flying today are just as dedicated as we were even knowing ahead of time that they are not going to receive the same kind of appreciation and recognition that those of us did in the early days.
Charles: Do you consider yourself the Christopher Columbus of the modern age?
Alan: I really don't. I consider myself very fortunate to have been allowed to make a couple of space flights for the United States. I recognize a few of us get a lot of attention, but literally hundreds of our close associates are the ones that did all the work. I remember saying in May of 1961 at the White House, when I received a medal from President Kennedy acknowledging that these hundreds, yes thousands of dedicated individuals on the ground are the ones to whom the accolades of the day should go. And I still feel that very strongly.
Charles: I remember the scene, Kennedy drops your medal during the presentation. What went through your head right then?
Alan: Well, we almost banged heads 'cause both of us (Shepard laughs) ... it was kind of cute. 'Cause Jack said, "Here", and Jackie (Kennedy) said, "No. No, Jack, pin it on." So then he recovered and pinned it on. So we had a lot of fun with that.
Charles: Do you consider both of your flights equal, as the first American in space and going to the moon...?
Alan: The only thing that is common to those two flights as I'm concerned was a certain round of personal pride and satisfaction. Not only to have been chosen to make these two missions, but also to be able to relatively, ah, expertly complete both of them.
Charles: That's good. Thank-you.
Months later, Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan visited the Hall of Fame one afternoon, meeting with Shepard and touring the facility. I had the pleasure (and luck) of guiding both moon walkers around the museum.
As we approached a flight simulator, the two gentleman aviators smiled at each other and said 'let's take a ride'. As they climbed aboard the multi-axis flight sim, I followed suite behind and became their 'third man', much like an Apollo flight.
As the four minute ride began, I took note of where I was riding with these two historic men who soared to the moon and walked upon the dusty lunar soil.
This young man was experiencing a flight sim with two Apollo astronauts just as if it were the Apollo years. As the ride concluded, I was grinning and kept that grin through out the day.
Shepard would succumb to leukemia following a two year battle in July 1998. His wife, Louise, later suffered a heart attack and died one month after Shepard aboard a flight home.
As you enter the space museum, visitors are greeted by a towering bronze statue of America's first astronaut. It stands poised as a reminder for future generations of a man who did so much to propel this country into the final frontier.