Chapter Fifteen

USS Lake Champlain,

The Atlantic Ocean,

May 5, 1961

10:00 AM

     As the helicopter carrying Alan Shepard approached the recovery ship Lake Champlain, Shepard could that the flight deck was teeming with people, NASA personnel, ordinary sailors, camera crews from all three networks and the usual gaggle of journalists. As the helicopter drew to a stop over the flight deck, Shepard could see that even Vulture Row was packed with people. The helicopter touched down on the flight deck with a gentle bump. The door opened and Shepard got out. He was instantly assaulted with a wave of noise, cheers, shouts and whistles. Until that moment, Shepard had been so focused preparing for the flight that he had no idea how the public had come to perceive his flight. As soon as Shepard stepped on the deck, a sailor ran forward with a paint brush and a can of paint and painted the outline of Shepard’s boots on the deck. Shepard was quickly hustled below deck by the NASA recovery team and taken directly to sickbay, where he was helped out of his spacesuit and given a full physical examination. During their training, the crew of the Lake Champlain had been explicitly instructed not to attempt to talk to Shepard under any circumstances. The only people who were cleared to interact with him were the members of the NASA recovery team and the ship’s doctor. They hovered around him, constantly asking “How do you feel?”

            “I feel fine,” Shepard responded amiably. “I think you’re going to be really bored.” They scrutinized his every move, as though he were something fragile that would fall apart at any second. When they decided that Shepard wasn’t going turn green or grow a third arm, he was escorted to the Captain’s cabin. Shepard opened the door and went inside. On the table in the middle of the room was a tape recorder. On a side table along one bulkhead was a tray with a pitcher of orange juice and two glasses. Shepard gulped down a glass of orange juice. Then he sat down in front of the tape recorder. He picked up the microphone. “My name-Jose Jimenez,” began Shepard in his bad Hispanic accent. He talked for about fifteen minutes, rambling mostly, recounting the events of the flight, giving recommendations for future missions and describing the sensations of weightlessness among other things. From there he moved on to an assessment of his own performance. “I quite frankly did a whole lot better than I thought I was going to be able to do….” Shepard’s monologue was interrupted when the growler phone on the bulkhead began to whir. He picked it up.

            The voice on the other end said “please hold for the President.”

            There were a few seconds of silence on the line. Then he heard President Kennedy’s familiar Boston drawl. “Hello, Commander.”

            Shepard’s back straightened. It was a reflex reaction. “Yes, sir,” he said.

            “I want to congratulate you very much,” said Kennedy.

            “Thank you very much, Mr. President,” answered Shepard.

            “We watched you on TV, of course,” said Kennedy. Kennedy had been watching the coverage of the flight from the Oval Office. When Shepard had emerged alive and unharmed from the recovery chopper, Kennedy had been heard to utter a relieved “Thank God.” Kennedy had been on tenter hooks all morning. “We are awfully pleased and proud of what you did.”

            “Well, thank you sir,” replied Shepard. “And as you know by know, everything worked out just perfectly.”

            “Yes,” said the President. “I am glad to hear that. I look forward to meeting you in a few days.”

            “I look forward to that as well, Mr. President,” said Shepard.

            When word was sent out that Shepard’s flight had been successful and that Shepard was alive and uninjured, it was as though the whole country let out a single collective sigh. In Mercury Control, at Cape Canaveral, the flight controllers burst out cheering. Veteran newsmen who had seen it all and just as much were misty eyed. On Highway A1A, in California, traffic came to a complete standstill. In Times Square, in New York, where thousands of people had gathered to hear live updates of the mission as they came in, there were spontaneous celebrations in the streets. In East Derry, New Hampshire, Shepard’s parents found themselves as the guests of honour in a spontaneous parade. Overhead, Army and Air Force jets filled the sky with a blizzard of confetti. In Virginia Beach, Louise Shepard collapsed in front of the TV in a flood of relieved tears.

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