Happy 92nd birthday, Alan Shepard Jr.

alan shepard

OK, so he’s no longer alive to celebrate it but I couldn’t let pass an item that I stumbled upon this morning.

The late Alan Shepard Jr. was born 92 years ago today.

Shepard enlivened a nation, invigorated our national psyche and gave us a sense of mission at a time when we needed it.

He did it simply by riding atop a rocket for a 15-minute ride into outer space. He splashed down a few hundred miles off the Florida coast into the Atlantic Ocean.

I was a youngster at the time. On May 5, 1961, when Shepard took off aboard that Redstone rocket, I was just 12. But I was fascinated, along with the rest of the country, by the notion of human beings flying into space.

The Soviet Union — which would be known later as the Evil Empire — had beaten us into space. Yuri Gagarin had orbited Earth a month before Shepard took off. The Soviets were beating us at our own game! President Kennedy would have none of it.

Shepard’s flight didn’t measure up to Gagarin’s orbit in the strictest sense, but it didn’t matter to a nation itching to get into the space race. Shepard’s successful flight put us in the thick of the fight.

He got another shot at space travel. A decade later Shepard commanded Apollo 14’s mission to the moon and hit that famous golf shot from the moon’s surface that flew for “miles and miles.”

I miss those days. I wish we could find it within our national spirit to insist on manned space flight. We’re now sending our astronauts into space aboard ships launched by our former arch-enemy; it’s called “Russia” these days, now that the Soviet Union has disintegrated.

Our space agency is developing a deep-space vehicle that eventually will take future pioneers to places like Mars and perhaps to the asteroid belt.

Is there national excitement as we await that day? Uhh, no.

We’re left to remember when gutsy test pilots such as Alan Shepard squeezed into tiny space capsules and flew aboard those relatively itty-bitty rockets. He gave us a national thrill that we haven’t duplicated in quite some time.

I hope I’m alive to see the first flight to Mars.

Meanwhile, happy birthday to a man former President Bill Clinton once described as “one of the great heroes of modern America.”