Boomers Watched Shepard Go Into Space

In case you somehow missed it, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world and former CEO of Amazon, rocketed into space in his own Blue Origin spacecraft this past week. As a nod to the beginning of American spaceflight, Bezos named his rocket and capsule New Shepard after Alan Shepard, the first U.S. astronaut to fly into space on May 5, 1961. (The first was Soviet Union cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin 23 days earlier.)

Obviously a lot has changed in space travel in the past 60 years, but since we boomers were around for the first launch and this first commercial launch with human passengers, it’s interesting to compare the two.

How the two flights compare:
Government agency mission control: National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)
Project Name: Mercury 7
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral, Florida
Flight Date: May 5, 1961
Rocket Base: Redstone booster
Capsule Name: Freedom 7
Pilot and Crew: Alan Shepard; capsule built for one occupant only
Duration of Flight: 15 1/2 minutes
Height Flown: 116 miles
Landing: Splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, 190 nautical miles from Cape Canaveral
Estimated cost of project: Congress allocated $277 million to start the program of putting a man into space

Private company mission control: Blue Origin (Amazon)
Project Name: New Shepard
Launch Site: Company owned facility in the West Texas desert, near Van Horn, Texas
Flight Date: July 20, 2021 (the 52-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing man on the moon)
Rocket Base: New Shepard reusable booster and capsule (the booster rocket lands safely back on earth after being disengaged from the capsule.)
Capsule Name: New Shepard (same as booster)
Pilot and Crew: Automated pilot, trajectory controlled from ground computers. Four passengers, including Wally Funk, now the oldest person to fly into space; Jeff Bezos and his brother, Mark; and Oliver Daemon, an 18-year old student from Amsterdam, the youngest person to fly into space
Duration of Flight: 11 minutes
Height Flown: 62 miles
Landing: Parachute landing near the company’s West Texas desert launch site
Estimated cost of project: Bezos isn’t saying, but has revealed that his upcoming project for orbital travel, the New Glenn, is clocking in at $2.5 billion.

Other fun facts:
• The number “seven” placed after each capsule name in the Project Mercury missions was a nod to the original seven men named as astronauts: Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton. All seven made it into space, most more than once. Virgil “Gus” Grissom was scheduled to fly in the Apollo 1 mission to land on the moon, when he was killed in a fire in the command module along with Edward White and Roger Chaffee, during a test on the launchpad on January 27, 1967.

• Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark are now the first siblings to fly into space together.

• Blue Origin’s next project, New Glenn, is named after original Mercury astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn.

• John Glenn had been the oldest person to fly into space when he returned on a Space Shuttle mission on January 16, 1998. He was 77 at the time. Wally Funk, now the oldest person to fly into space, is 82.

• Wally Funk was a 22-year old pilot when she was chosen as one of 13 women (the Mercury 13) to be tested alongside the original seven male astronauts in February of 1961, in a privately-funded effort called the Lovelace Project. The 13 women ultimately chosen from a pool of 25 had all passed the same tests as the men; Wally Funk even had higher scores on some tests than John Glenn. NASA chose to cancel the program before the final test could be given, using the excuse that their astronauts had to be military test pilots. Consequently, the first woman in space was Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, on June 16, 1963. The first American woman in space was Astronaut Sally Ride, on January 16, 1978.

• On February 6, 1971, Alan Shepard not only walked on the moon, he hit two golf balls with a 6-iron he sneaked onboard.

• The first Space Race was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This Billionaire’s Space Race (as it has been termed) pits Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin against Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Virgin Galactic successful ushered two pilots, three mission specialists and Richard Branson into space on July 11, 2021. Blue Origin flew approximately 12 miles higher than the Virgin Galactic flight. SpaceX has yet to launch humans into space.

Mister Boomer saw the first Shepard launch on a TV wheeled into his classroom at school in 1961. He watched this past week’s Blue Origin launch as highlights on the internet. How about it, boomers? Did you watch both launches? Did it stir memories of those early days of space travel?

Boomers Watched Presidents Make Their “Big Ask”

When President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress last week, it may have seemed like deja vu all over again for boomers. The reason for this is very simple; every president during the boomer era has addressed Congress with an ambitious agenda that amounted to a “big ask.” Indeed, suggesting legislation is a main part of the job and a good part of why we elect presidents. See if you remember this portion of our shared history, now that decades have passed and we have had the benefit of hindsight to evaluate their effect on our lives.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower — National Interstate Highways
For many people, Eisenhower’s signature legislation was the building of the interstate highway system. President Eisenhower officially introduced his proposal to Congress on February 22, 1955. A year later Congress allocated $26 billion for the construction of the 40,000 mile system of interconnected highways. Construction began in 1956, but wasn’t completed until 1992, so the budget had ultimately ballooned to more than $115 billion.

President John F. Kennedy — Man on the Moon
The Space Race began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. The U.S. soon matched Soviet orbiting satellites and established a manned space program. In 1961, Kennedy upped the ante by stating the goal of sending men to the moon and back by the end of the decade. He addressed Congress on May 25, 1961. Project Mercury was already two years old, and only two weeks earlier on May 5, Alan Shepard took the first U.S. manned sub-orbital flight. In February of 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. With these initial steps, the President asked Congress for $7-9 billion to be added to the Space Program over five years. On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon.

President Lyndon B. Johnson — Medicare
Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had tried to pass a form of healthcare legislation specifically for senior Americans, but failed in committees. President Kennedy was working toward being the third president to introduce legislation, but was assassinated before he could do so. President Lyndon Johnson picked up the task and in his State of the Union address on January 4, 1965, revealed his plan for Medicare. Congress dedicated $2.2 billion dollars to establish the program, and Medicare became part of the Social Security Amendments of 1965. Johnson recognized Truman as the “real daddy of Medicare,” so on July 30, 1965, he signed the bill at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. On hand were former President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess. President Johnson personally issued the first and second Medicare cards to them.

President Richard M. Nixon — The Environmental Protection Agency
Most people point to the publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as the alarm that raised public awareness for environmental concerns. It had become evident that pollution of our air, water and land had become a major problem. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin accompanied then President John Kennedy on an 11-day trip in September of 1963 to raise awareness on pollution and environmental issues. (Nelson later was the founder of Earth Day.) Congress acted on the growing public sentiment for clean air, water and land management with the Clean Air Act of 1964. They passed additional bills over the next four years addressing national pollution problems.

During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon didn’t pay much attention to environmental issues. Then eight days after he was sworn in as President in January of 1969, there was a rupture on a Union Oil platform off the coast of California at Santa Barbara that spilled 100,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. A 60-mile oil slick covered beaches, devasted the local fishing industry and destroyed habitat for marine animals. The American people were horrified.

Congress reacted with the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Nixon was not on board at first, but voters were all for some environmental protections, so two months after the Union Oil disaster, he signed the bill. Prior to 1960, the Republican Party was seen as a big supporter of environmental issues, especially relating to farm land management and wildlife conservation. Now, with an increasing number of bills concerning the environment, more than 40 agencies were tasked with enforcing the new laws. After much consultation with his colleagues and aides, Nixon signed an executive order in June of 1969 establishing the Environmental Quality Council to oversee environmental issues.

Now with public sentiment behind him, and having been convinced that the environment would be a big issue in the upcoming election, on July 9, 1970, Nixon asked Congress to set up an agency that would consolidate and control all environmental issues with his Reorganization Plan No. 3. Nixon requested additional money for combating current pollution, including money to upgrade the country’s water treatment plants. His total ask was just over $10 billion. Congress passed the bill and on December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations.

The moral of the story for boomers is, we’ve been here before. The presidents during the boomer decades of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s all requested large-scale legislation from Congress. As time has passed, most historians agree that the positives for the American people acquired through these boomer-era programs have outweighed the negatives.

Do you remember these historical events, boomers?