59 years ago today, Alan Shepard became the first astronaut, less than one month after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin ascended into space.
Shepard’s vehicle was the Mercury-Redstone. The first rocket in this series of modified ballistic missiles traveled four inches before the mission was aborted. The third carried Ham, the first hominid in space, who returned to Earth and lived until 1983. Shepard was flying on the fifth.
Reporters later asked him what he was thinking while waiting for liftoff. He responded, “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.”
I love this answer.
It’s cool and brash. He has a proper sense of the mortal risk involved, and has rationally analyzed what someone might fear in this situation. It’s funny, and it’s funny because it’s true. Shepard is bluntly honest, uncensored. He speaks both as a trained professional and as a free American.
He didn’t say that he was thinking about the space race with the Russians, or the importance of this historical moment. He didn’t say that he was praying to God, looking back at his childhood, or thinking about his family. He is focused on the moment.
He understands that engineers and designers work within economic constraints. He knows that he sits atop a tall cylinder that is about to direct all of its explosive power to hurl him against the force of gravity beyond the reaches of the sky. He recognizes that his country bears the financial cost of this, that he is at the apex of an entire capitalistic system that is struggling to prove it can overtake a rival country that so far has outpaced us at every milestone.
He accepts the hazards because he is an astronaut.