On my fifth birthday with my parents, grandparents on my mother’s side, and my almost one-year-old little sister, Bobbi, we had an exciting outer space theme event planned.
To coincide with the scheduled first man in space liftoff of NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, my birthday cake had a rocket decorated on top. It was December 5th, 1960 and my new moon and stars flannel pajamas were in style and ready for the upcoming winter.
But something didn’t work out right. Shepard’s blast off was postponed. This was the second time and it would be delayed three more times. The continuous hold ups caused Shepard to be the first American, but second man, in space. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, and the first to orbit the Earth.
Gene Kranz ‘Reach For The Stars’
In March 2006, I took my son Jack to a CollectSpace astronaut and space pioneers event at the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio. We met Buzz Aldrin, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Jim Lovell, Bruce McCandless, and others.
When I asked famed NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz about Shepard’s attitude about being second in space, he giggled.
“When he heard the Russians beat us to the punch, Alan slammed his fist on the table so hard, we thought he had broken his hand.”
One of my favorite NASA history stories is about the first time Kranz arrived at Patrick Air Force Base.
“I wasn’t quite certain how I’d get to Cape Canaveral,” he told us. “Well, there was this fellow who was on the aircraft with me who said his car was parked there and I could ride with him.”
“It was a Corvette and I was impressed. I got in and this guy accelerates like he is in a rocket, whips us into a 180-degree turn, slammed that accelerator down to the floor, races up the taxiway, and skids out onto the street in a four-wheel slide.”
“We shoot through the security gate, and the MPs just salute,” Kranz remembers. “Roaring down the highway at least 90, the man finally looks at me, sticks out his hand, and says, ‘Hi, I’m Gordo Cooper.’ That’s how I met my first astronaut.”
When son Jack tried to pay for Kranz’s autograph with one dollar bills and lots of change, he asked him to “wait a second. What’s all this? Where did you get all this money?”
“I worked and mowed and saved it,” Jack, 11, replied respectfully.
“No Sir, you put that money back in your pocket,” Kranz motioned at his wife and Carpenter to look. “I’m going to give you this autograph. It’s on me.”
He signed his picture, “To Jack, Always reach for the stars.”
Alan Shepard’s Rocket
Forty-five years earlier Momma promised me after Shepard’s postponement that we would have another space party when the American rocket actually launched. I remember that celebration because it entailed watermelon and eating outside.
On May 5, 1961, Shepard piloted the Mercury-Redstone Spacecraft that he deemed Freedom 7.
That evening my grandparents brought a watermelon to eat with our “Space Party” meal. It included this orange flavored powder called Tang. Mom mixed it with water, stirred, and Voilà! I was drinking astronaut juice.
Afterwards we all went outside and sat on lawn chairs, with Bobbi and I laying and sitting on a quilt in the front yard grass.
“Keep looking up, Jackie,” Dad pointed to the stars. “You might see a spaceship.”
We didn’t stay out long, because mosquitoes started biting some of us. I don’t remember if Bobbi or I were bitten, but they grabbed her up fast and we all went back inside.
On the table was a red giftwrapped box with a blue bow on it. It was a Space Lunch Box. The thermos was a rocket.
“What’s a lunch box?” I asked.
Paw-Paw (my grandfather) showed me how to open it, use it, and close it all back up.
“It’s for when you take your lunch to school,” he said.
“What’s a school?” I asked.
Little did I know how my five-year old life was about to change.
Without even the slightest idea of what a “school” was, I’d be attending “first grade” in one at age five in about three months.
But more dreadful than that, my mother had been bitten by one of those mosquitoes that night. The ramifications were dire.
(To be continued. Click below for email notification when we post new articles).
Part 3 The Day Superman Rescued My Momma