Freedom 7 splashes down in Annapolis Smithsonian lends historic spaceship to Naval Academy

September 24, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Stick your head through the small hatch of the Freedom 7 space capsule and it's clear how the term "Spam in a can" came to describe the role of the nation's first astronauts.

Smell the musty inside of this steel womb, with its spaghetti clumps of wire, primitive toggle switches and wooden control sticks, their black paint peeling, and you gain a new appreciation of what it took for Alan B. Shepard to become the first American in space.

Then close your eyes and picture a Volkswagen Beetle strapped to the tip of a Redstone rocket.

As the container for Shepard's historic 15-minute suborbital space flight on May 5, 1961, the Freedom 7 capsule is among the most prized mementos of our nation's history in the heavens. deference to the school that has supplied the most astronauts, the Smithsonian Institution has lent the capsule to the Naval Academy for five years.

"We wanted to lend it to somewhere where it really fitted," said Amanda Brown, a specialist in early manned spaceflight with the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

At the unveiling yesterday at the academy's Armel-Leftwich Visitor's Center, George Laupp of Glen Burnie stuck his head inside the capsule -- before a Plexiglas case was installed around the display -- and let out a "whew." Laupp, who collects military caps from the ships and submarines that he and his fellow veterans visit in their spare time, said the capsule seems small, but also larger than life.

"This is quite a feat right here," Laupp said. "It seems like it was yesterday."

Then the retired Air Force engine mechanic expressed sorrow about Shepard's death two months ago and let out another "whew."

Shepard's spirit was everywhere yesterday, as it will be during the coming week of celebrations honoring the space capsule and the astronauts who got their starts at the academy.

Shepard was among 50 academy graduates who became astronauts. Many of them are scheduled to return Monday for a commemoration.

"Freedom 7 will remind our midshipmen and our guests of the many accomplishments of our graduates," Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, the academy superintendent, said in a statement.

And it will probably remind visitors of the bravery of the men who were hurtled into space at 5,100 mph.

Shepard's flight left Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 9: 34 a.m., soared to 115 miles above the earth and landed 302 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. He was in space for about five minutes. The 2,000-pound capsule fell backward through the atmosphere, the temperature of the thick metal heat shield under Shepard's seat reaching a few thousand degrees before one parachute popped, then another. Shepard greeted officers on the Navy recovery ship with, "Boy, what a ride!"

Shepard was part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Project Mercury, created in 1958 to put man into space. At the time, it was unclear whether the astronauts were pilots or passengers in biological experiments -- "Spam in a can," as Tom Wolfe put it in "The Right Stuff."

"The question of whether astronauts would play a direct piloting role was one that was debated vigorously," said Allan Needell, chairman of the Smithsonian's space history division.

Shepard and the others managed to gain some control over the engineering of the capsules, Needell said. For example, Shepard couldn't see much through Freedom 7's tiny windows and lobbied successfully for larger windows on future capsules.

Shepard died in July at age 74.

"It's really sad that he died just before we were able to bring it here," said Brown. "He was really excited about bringing it [Freedom 7] here. It's very important that these treasures not sit in a storage area someplace."

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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