One giant leap for Pappy


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



As a 10-year-old boy, I was always looking for a good adventure. Dodging trees while sledding down Camp Miami hill in Germantown was a real rush. We once found a discarded car hood from an old Chevy and loaded about a dozen friends on before rocketing across the snow toward Warren Street.

We did some crazy things on our bicycles. One of my stunts resulted in a badly broken right ankle and about six months in a cast and on crutches.

We all had a craving for adventure in the 1960s. On May 5, 1961, I was excited and overwhelmed by an adventure that we could only sit and watch.

Early that spring morning, we were dismissed from our homerooms. Our sixth-grade class was marched down the hallway and down a flight of stairs to the cafeteria. One of the maintenance men at the school had carried down one of the few televisions the school owned. A room full of students was gathered around the TV so we could all see.

Once the small image was focused, we saw a rocket sitting on a launch pad.

We were told that the Redstone rocket was going to blast into space and carry the small space capsule, Friendship 7, into space. Sitting inside the capsule was an astronaut named Alan Shepard.

There had been delays in the launch. They were running a few hours behind schedule. Our teacher filled the time with information about NASA and the space race. We didn’t know everything that was being said and done behind the scenes during the delay.

Apparently, Shepard had a few cups of coffee before getting strapped into his seat. As time wore on, his bladder filled and stretched beyond his ability to “hold it.”

As told by Tom Wolfe in his book “The Right Stuff,” Shepard had no choice. He urinated in this space suit and told mission control, “Now, fix your little problem and light this candle.” Within minutes, at 9:34 am, we watched live on television as our first astronaut flew into space.

By today’s standards it wasn’t much of a flight. He achieved an altitude of 116 miles and immediately fell back to earth. The entire history making flight, from Cape Canaveral to the waters of the Bahamas, lasted 15 minutes and 22 seconds.

Shepard instantly became an American hero.

In 1963, Shepard was removed from NASA flight status because of an inner-ear problem, but he never gave up on his dream.

In 1971, 10 years after his history making first flight, Alan Shepard became the only member of the original Mercury seven astronauts to go to the moon. He was Commander of Apollo 14 and spent 33.5 hours on the lunar surface and nine-hours and 23 minutes walking on the lunar surface.

That was a far cry from his original 15-minute suborbital flight.

Whether it is a 15-minute ride or a nine-hour moonwalk… I wanted to go. I want to go so high and so fast that a heatshield will be needed during reentry. I am sure there are millions of other Americans who would love to experience the weightlessness and the majesty of space. My grandson is one.

There has been much criticism in the past few weeks about billionaires flying into space. I am not going to criticize anyone.

Personally, I don’t think we have spent nearly enough time in space. The technology that has been developed in the process of getting people in and out of space is staggering. Everything from Velcro to the powdered drink mix, Tang, and many, many medical breakthroughs have resulted from spaceflight research.

About a year ago, my grandson Clayton and I were watching the movie “The Martian.” He surprised me by stating that he wanted to be an astronaut and he wanted to go to Mars. I told him it would take over a year to get there and back. That made no difference to my little buddy. I asked if I could go to Mars with him and he quickly said, “Of course, Pappy. We’ll go together.”

Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos could afford to build their own space transport vehicles. It is reported that Elon Musk with his SpaceX company is planning to launch into space in the near future. I say great. I hope they discover plenty of new things that will make a trip to Mars by human explorers safer and more practical.

Clayton and I may never become billionaires, but we will continue to hold onto our dream of flying to Mars.

He could be the youngest astronaut and I might be the oldest Pappy to fly in space, but dreaming is quite often how reality takes shape.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist