The White House,
May 8, 1961
Marine One touched down on the south lawn of the White House with a slight bump. The door opened and Shepard, his parents, Glenn, Schirra, Slayton, Cooper, Carpenter and Grissom and their wives got out. At the bottom of the ladder, a Marine in crisp looking dress blues came to attention and saluted smartly. The seven astronauts all returned his salute as they got off the helicopter. The Kennedies were standing about ten feet away, just out of reach of the helicopter’s rotor wash. As soon as Marine One lifted off again, the President and the First Lady walked over to where the astronauts were standing. There was a round of hand shakes and a series of polite “Mr. Presidents” and “Mames.”
The President gestured to the White House. “Please come with me,” he said. “There is to be a small presentation in the Rose Garden.” The astronauts and their wives followed him. Jackie took Louise Shepard by the arm and they went ahead. They were already chatting as if they were old friends.
A small dais stood in the Rose Garden. On it stood a podium with a microphone flanked by speakers. In front of the dais were gathered the astronauts, their wives and members of the White House press pool, as well as the White House photographer. At 10:00 AM, Pierre Salinger, the White House Press Secretary stepped up to the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.” On cue, the Marine Band struck up Hail to the Chief and everyone stood. The President stepped up onto the dais, accompanied by Shepard.
“I would like to begin by expressing my great pleasure in welcoming Commander Shepard and Mrs. Shepard here today,” said Kennedy. “As citizens of this great country, Commander and Mrs. Shepard know how proud we all are of them,” Kennedy continued, “and we are very proud of them indeed.
“I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to a number of individuals who have worked to ensure that this flight was a success: Robert Gilruth, the Director of the Space Task Force at Langley Field, Walter Williams, the Operations Director of Project Mercury, Deputy Administrator Dr Hugh Dryden, Lt. Col. John Glenn and of course, NASA Administrator James Webb.
“Many of these names are unfamiliar,” said Kennedy, “but if this flight had been a failure, these names would be known to everybody. For that reason,” Kennedy continued, “I think it is appropriate that their role in ensuring the success of Commander Shepard’s flight should be acknowledged.
“I feel that it is also important to recognize that Commander Shepard flew his mission in the open, in spite the possibility of failure, which would have had significant consequences for American national prestige. For this reason, it seems right to me to say that we have risked much, but in risking, we have gained much
“I would like now like to present this award. On behalf of the National Air and Space Administration, it is my great pleasure to present the NASA Distinguished Service Medal to Commander Alan B Shepard Jr for his outstanding contribution to the development of space technology. As the first American to fly in space, Commander Shepard has made an outstanding contribution to human understanding and our knowledge of the universe.” President Kennedy turned to Shepard. Shepard stepped forward and stood at attention. As Kennedy moved to pin the medal to Shepard’s jacket, he fumbled and dropped. Both men bent over to pick it up and almost collided. Kennedy got there first and pinned the medal to Shepard’s chest. “This medal has gone from the ground up,” he said. Everyone laughed and applauded. Shepard saluted. Kennedy returned his salute and shook his hand. “Congratulations, Commander,” said Kennedy.
“Thank you Mr. President,” said Shepard.
After the presentation ceremony, Jackie Kennedy took the wives on a guided tour of the White House. The President and the astronauts adjourned to Oval Office. “I’ve seen the mission reports,” said Kennedy, “but I would love to hear your description of the flight.”
Shepard spoke for fifteen minutes, describing the sensations of lift off, weightlessness, the view through his periscope and re-entry. “I tried to look through my portholes,” he said. “The Russians said that Gagarin saw stars, but I couldn’t see any.”
“You didn’t have a proper window?” asked Kennedy, slightly surprised.
“No sir,” responded Shepard.
“We’ve been given assurances from the designers that all future Mercury spacecraft will have a proper window,” responded Glenn.
“Good,” said Kennedy. He paused. “You know, I’ve had a number of discussions with my advisors about the long term goals of the space program, and there’s been some talk of possibly sending a rocket to the moon. For now, it’s just talk, mind you, but it’s one of a number of possible long term space projects that we are considering.”
The astronauts all traded surprised looks. There had been talk at the Cape about what would come after Mercury and the idea of a moon shot been broached more than once, but they were given to understand that such an undertaking was at least twenty years away. It seemed that Kennedy had different plans in mind. The door to the Oval Office opened and Ted Sorensen entered. “It’s time, Mr. President,” he said.
“Thank you Ted,” said Kennedy. The President stood. So did the astronauts. “Come with me, Commander,” he said to Shepard. “There are some people I’d like you to meet.”
The presidential limousine was waiting for them under the North Portico. Kennedy and Shepard got in, with the others sharing cars with the members of the White House Press Pool who were tagging along. Initially, there was some confusion, as two of the reporters refused to believe that John Glenn and Deke Slayton were astronauts, and refused to give them a ride, until Shepard intervened and straightened things out. The three block drive to the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention didn’t take very long. The President’s limo pulled around the back of the Sheraton-Park Hotel and stopped. Kennedy and Shepard got out and were escorted inside, where they were met by Leroy Collins, the Governor of Florida.
“Mr. President,” said Collins, shaking Kennedy’s hand, “welcome.”
“Governor, allow me to introduce Commander Alan Shepard,” said Kennedy. He turned to Shepard. “Commander, this is Leroy Collins, the Governor of Florida.”
“Commander Shepard,” said Collins, taking Shepard’s hand, “this is a great honour, you’ve done a great service for your country.”
“Thank you very much, Governor,” said Shepard, shaking Collins’ hand.
There followed what seemed to Shepard like a whirlwind of introductions, to TV and radio executives, members of Congress, senators, several more state governors and even the Auxiliary Bishop of Washington DC. Shepard felt a bit like he had become Kennedy’s pet, but suspected that Kennedy had a larger purpose in bringing him here and played along. Inevitably, there was another speech.
“Governor Collins,” began the President, “Bishop Hannah, ladies and gentlemen, we have with us today, the number one television performer in the United States, who secured the largest rating for a morning show in recent history, last Friday morning.” There was laughter and applause. “It is my great pleasure in introduce to you Commander Alan Shepard.”
Shepard stepped up to the podium. As one, the assembled dignitaries and politicians rose to their feat and applauded loudly. “Thank you,” said Shepard, “thank you very much. I understand that we have a very busy day today, and don’t have a lot of time, but I would like to thank all of you for your warm welcome, and I would like to thank the American people their support in ensuring the success of the flight.”
President Kennedy spoke for another fifteen minutes. He once again thanked everyone at NASA for their hard work and once again pointed out that had the flight been a failure, everyone would have known the names every single person involved. He also pointed out the differences between the Soviet Union and the United States, highlighting the fact that Soviets’ first manned space flight had been conducted in secret, while Shepard’s mission had been broadcast live on national television. “As some of you may know, before the flight, members of our community expressed the opinion that Commander Shepard’s mission should not be televised in the event of failure. At the time, I saw no way of out televising the flight,” said Kennedy, “I believe that the very idea of secrecy is repugnant to a free and democratic society. I further believe that the essence of free and open communication in a democratic society must be that our failures as well as our successes are broadcast around the world. By doing so we may be doubly proud of our successes.”
Anyone observing the tumult surrounding the flight of Freedom 7 would have thought that Shepard and the other astronauts were used to the applause and adoration that they received in the wake of Shepard’s mission. However, no one was prepared for the throngs of people who came out to see the astronauts, the parade wound its way around Pennsylvania Avenue. Children were given the day off school and businesses closed for the day.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson leaned over and shouted in Shepard’s ear. “Look at these people, Commander. They love you. They think you’re a hero. There are two things you need to know about being famous, Commander.”
“What are those, sir?” asked Shepard.
“Never pass up a free lunch or an opportunity to visit the men’s room,” responded Johnson.