May 1, 2011

Derry's Shepard led the way into space

Alan Shepard all dressed up with someplace to go: space. COURTESY PHOTO
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. got 15 minutes of rocket-fueled fame aboard the Freedom 7, becoming the first American in space.
Fifty years — and a lifetime of accomplishments — later, Shepard has more than earned his place in history as a pivotal pioneer who paved a path to space.In honor of that historic flight, there will be plenty of hoopla this week, both in his home state at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord and on Cape Canaveral in Florida, where an event is planned for Wednesday on the original space program launch pad, timed down to the minute to coincide with Shepard’s jettison into the history books.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Post Office will release a pair of stamps, one featuring Shepard and the Freedom 7, and the other depicting the Messenger, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. It is the first time Shepard has been honored with a postage
 stamp, despite countless other foreign postal tributes over the years. 

This actual teletype printout, one of many artifacts
 in the Derry History Museum, is how the news
 of Alan B. Shepard’s space flight was
disseminated to various news outlets on May 5, 1961.
Among the items on display at the
Derry History Museum: Shepard trading
 cards, a commemorative ashtray
and a pair of leather flight gloves
 actually worn by Shepard. 
None of it will rival the half-century of dedicated fervor that has kept Shepard’s legacy alive in Derry, affectionately known by its nickname, Space Town. 
From the Alan B. Shepard Jr. Post Office and Pinkerton Academy’s Shepard Auditorium, to the Derry History Museum’s dedicated Alan Shepard room, Shepard’s accomplishments are well-chronicled and frequently revisited here. 
Elementary school kids, as a matter of course, learn the details of Shepard’s launch into space. Pinkerton Academy students continue to learn about Shepard’s trajectory, from their alma mater to Annapolis to the pinnacle of space exploration, as NASA’s chosen one. 
“It’s hard to add anything to what’s already been said about our hero of Pinkerton Academy, Class of 1940,” said Dick Becker, a classmate of Shepard who still resides in the town where the two grew up. 
He rejects the notion that the weight of Shepard’s accomplishment as the first American in space may be losing some of its heft, as time and technology advance. 
“I look at it from a little different point of view. He is our hero. Nothing’s lost,” said Becker, who after graduation went on to eventually become executive vice president and general manager of the New Hampshire Union Leader. 
“The late William Loeb and I wanted him to run for governor of New Hampshire. Loeb looked upon Alan Shepard as a go-for-the-throat kind of engineering mind, which was just what we needed, in terms of leadership, at that time,” said Becker. “I’ve kept the letter, hand-written by Shepard, wherein he declined our offer for support if he ran. He very respectfully declined, saying that politics was not his bag.” 
Youthful enthusiasm 
From Shepard’s boyhood fascination with aviator Charles Lindbergh and his own quest to conquer gravity aboard a borrowed glider in a Derry hay field, to his 24-mile round trip bike commutes to Manchester Municipal Airport, where he learned to fly, Shepard’s one and only bag was pushing himself to excel, taking the quickest possible route to get to the top, and being the first one to arrive. 
In 2004, a biography of Shepard finally emerged, “Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America’s First Spaceman,” penned by Neal Thompson. The book is filled with information and remembrances that served to paint a more complete portrait of the man behind the astronaut legacy, a story previously untold. 
In the book, Shepard emerges as a driven, impatient, ambitious man’s man who, despite his human flaws, excelled at the thing he trained his whole life for. “Writing the book was tricky at first. It’s why it hadn’t been done before, because Alan Shepard kept reporters at a distance, and he didn’t let anyone get close enough to know the details of his life,” said Thompson, currently living and working in Washington state. 
Thompson, a former newspaper reporter, was first intrigued by the lack of information available about this American icon when, in 1998, he was tasked with fleshing out the details in Shepard’s obituary. Until his book, no other detailed Shepard biography existed. 
“Even after he passed away, people continued to be protective of him. They would say to me, ‘I don’t think Al would want me to talk about that.’ He wasn’t a self-promoter. He didn’t want that kind of attention, and he wanted to retain his privacy,” Thompson said. 
Eventually, Shepard’s space program peers, friends and family members would trust Thompson enough to share stories and anecdotes. But some of the richest pay dirt came from a trunk full of Shepard’s childhood artifacts, revealed to Thompson during a visit to Shepard’s childhood home on East Derry Road, currently owned by David Barka. 
“I got to look through an old steamer trunk that Shepard had left behind, which was jammed with private letters between Shepard and his soon-to-be wife, Louise, scrapbooks, school papers,” said Thompson. 
Strong family roots 
For the hometown crowd, there has always been great pride in the fact that Shepard was born inside that farmhouse in rural New Hampshire, the product of a union between Bart Shepard and Renza Emerson, both born of prominent New England families who were instrumental in helping shape the town over centuries, from business and agriculture, to the actual landscape. 
Juliana Shepard Jenkins, one of Shepard’s three daugh-ters, now lives in Texas and continues to work closely with the Mercury Seven Foundation, established in 1984 by her father and the six surviving astronauts who together were known as the “Mercury Seven.” 
Jenkins said growing up on naval bases where supersonic jets were the norm and astronauts were regular house guests meant she never feared for her father’s safety, exploring new terrain as a space cowboy. 
“It was a very normal family life, and from a childlike point of view, I always considered all the astronauts as typical men, which meant that to me every man was as smart as an astronaut. I didn’t know until much later that a lot of astronauts’ wives and children were fearful of the missions,” Jenkins said. 
Shepard walked on the moon during his second spaceflight as the commander of Apollo 14 from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9, 1971. During the mission, he had time to hit a couple of golf balls from the lunar surface. 
Jenkins said that even as NASA’s 25 years of shuttle missions wind down — the next one is scheduled to lift off on Monday — Jenkins believes it has never been more important for the United States to continue its exploration of space. 
“I took a private tour of NASA a few years ago, and they are prepared and ready. 
They want to go to the moon again, and from there, go to Mars. Right now we need the funding. I think it’s vitally important when you consider all the things NASA gave us, from all the medical apparatus to microwaves and Velcro — all the experiments they did has helped to make this country great,” said Jenkins. “Many other astronauts I’ve spoken to feel the same way, and I know it’s what dad would have wanted, too.” 

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