Today the news services are remembering Alan Shepard’s flight in the Freedom 7 capsule fifty years ago, on May 5, 1961. He was the first American to fly in space and a true American hero. This seems a fitting day to share my own small personal recollection of him.
When I was in sixth grade I was fitted with a large, uncomfortable back brace that I had to wear 24 hours a day. That was the current treatment for scoliosis in 1967. It was physically uncomfortable and limited my activities, but far more burdensome to a young middle school student were the unwelcome stares and notoriety at school. My mom and dad knew I was having a hard time, but what could they do? As a parent now I can imagine how they felt.
Dad worked at NASA, and one day he was telling some of his colleagues about his concern for his son. One of those colleagues was Alan Shepard, and when he heard the story he wanted to do more than just sympathize. “Would it help if I came to visit him at school?” Dad thought that was a great idea, so they picked a day and made the arrangements. The two of them took off work one morning, drove to my school (about an hour from the Center) and visited me in my sixth grade math class. All the kids were so eager to meet a famous astronaut they practically leaped out of their seats. He shook hands, signed autographs, and answered questions from the class for about fifteen minutes. Then they left and drove back to work. I was an instant celebrity.
I never met him again after that day, but I will always be grateful. Alan Shepard was not only an American hero, he was a good and decent human being.