Thursday, May 05, 2011

Freedom 7 Fifty Years Later

I have always, my entire life, loved the US space program. Indeed, it's easily the closest that I could ever come to being construed as "a patriot." As a child, I spent untold hours poring over every word, every illustration, every World Book Encyclopedia entry I could find about astronauts and space exploration. That love has never particularly diminished and as far as I'm concerned the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions may well be the coolest things that the US has ever done, as an entity.

Fifty years ago today, all that magic started with a 15-minute journey by Alan Shepard, the first American (and second human) in space, perched atop a Redstone rocket in the Mercury capsule named Freedom 7. Which didn't have a window, by the way.

According to Gene Kranz in his book, Failure Is Not an Option, "When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, he had replied, 'The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.'"

Fortunately, the US space program has been well documented. One of the finest films I've seen is the Discovery Channel's 6-part series When We Left Earth, which is comprised entirely of NASA footage and interviews. It's awe-inspiring. Those looking for a more dramatic portrayal (though still largely accurate) need look no further than The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe's book, and featuring some of the best casting imaginable. Finally, for a more cerebral take on the Apollo missions, the documentary For All Mankind (with a soundtrack by Brian Eno) is sublime, haunting, mysterious and beautiful.

I doubt I'll ever tire of these accounts of a time when our national goals and achievements were a little more — sorry — starry-eyed than they seem today. And really, John Kennedy said it much better, one year and one week after Freedom 7 at Rice University.

(the entire legendary 17-minute speech)

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