Astronauts were our heroes but wouldn't let us get close

July 26, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AS MEMORY serves, they piped Alan B. Shepard's pioneering spaceshot over the intercom at Baltimore City College, where my 10th-grade class was slogging through one of Mr. Dittman's geometry lectures on the fascinating life of the parallelogram. We were all a little disappointed that day, because Shepard's ride lasted only 15 minutes. It meant that, when he returned to Earth, we still had to suffer through 35 minutes of the joys of parallelograms.

The newspapers all offered glowing tributes to Shepard last week, when he died, at 74, after a long struggle with leukemia. It's 37 years since May 5, 1961, when this first American astronaut went into the heavens, and I don't for a moment mean to diminish his extraordinary courage, or the pride he offered Cold War America by pulling the country's space program out of a depressing era when schoolboys had hooted at its high-profile bungling.

What I mean to ask is: Why didn't our hearts connect more fully when Shepard was here? Why, at that precise moment, did his ride count as much for removing us from a geometry lecture as it did for its stunning place in history?

America has always known how to provide the trappings of heroism, and Shepard got his: the ticker-tape parade, the handshake at the White House from John Kennedy, the flashy spread in Life magazine. When Shepard declared himself "A-OK," the phrase became part of the national jargon.

But something seemed to short-circuit on the way to national romance. The "right stuff" that Tom Wolfe later wrote about -- the combination of courage and cool and quick wits -- always seemed to keep the astronauts at arm's length.

When Shepard went into the sky that spring morning, he should have been our blind date with great unknowns, our tour guide to wildest imaginings. But something stood in the way. We wanted the astronauts to speak to us in English, but they rarely allowed themselves beyond techno-speak.

By the time of the Armstrong-Collins-Aldrin moonshot, eight years after Shepard, Norman Mailer would capture some of this in his book "A Fire on the Moon." At a preflight news conference, he wrote of Neil Armstrong:

"He would have been more extraordinary, in fact, if he had been just a salesman making a modest, inept, dull little speech, for then one would have been forced to wonder how he had ever gotten his job, how he could sell even one item. He was apparently in communion with some string in the universe others did not think to unravel."

Of Buzz Aldrin, Mailer wrote: "[Aldrin] talked like a hard-working drill. Of the tense moment when ready to ignite for ascent from the moon's surface, Aldrin merely spoke of the 'various contingencies that can develop,' and of a 'wider variety of trajectory conditions.' He was talking about not being able to join up, wandering through space, lost forever to life in that short eternity before they expired of hunger and thirst.

"The heart of astronaut talk, like the heart of all bureaucratic talk, was a jargon which could easily be converted to computer programming. But what if you're unable to get off the moon? 'Unpleasant thing to think about.' "

We wanted to know about the beating of their hearts, and they wouldn't get past the x's and o's programmed into their brains.

So it felt a little empty saying goodbye to Alan Shepard last week. A sense of might-have-been settled in, the notion that, while he and the others had performed heroically, we'd been shortchanged in vicarious thrills. We never quite learned how it felt.

Shepard went back to a time when we still allowed ourselves to believe uncompromisingly in heroes. John Kennedy talked of idealism and selflessness. John Wayne strode across our movie screens as a war hero. Who knew about Kennedy's off-hours adventures? Who cared that Wayne had ducked out of the real-life war when his time had come?

" 'Boy, What A Ride!' Shepard Says After 115-Mile Flight Into Space," the newspaper headlines roared the morning after he made history. But tucked into a little corner was another story, with a tiny headline:

"U.S. Weighs Use of GIs In Vietnam; Kennedy Discloses Proposal But Says He Is Undecided."

The time of uncompromised heroes was ending, and a national cynicism was about to dawn: with Vietnam, with Watergate, with a political agenda now so skewed that a government teeters because a president might have had sex when he thought nobody was looking.

Alan Shepard was a genuine hero we could have embraced without compromise. But we never exactly got to know him, or most of his generation of spacemen.

"I was so jealous of the astronauts," the journalist Oriana Fallaci once wrote. "I asked them, 'Why you and not me? You are going upstairs with no eyes to look, no ears to listen, no tongue to tell. I would have gone upstairs with all my eyes, all my ears, all my tongues.' If I could, I would step on the moon and plant a tree."

Or, at least, tell us how it felt to be human at such a moment.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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