A quiet ceremony in a state highway garage the week before last was a chance to again remember a local hero not for the golf shot heard ‘round the Milky Way but for the turn he took at the controls of a gravel spreader and crane back when Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire was still road planner’s dream.
We speak of Alan B. Shepard Jr., late astronaut from Derry, who was the first U.S. man in space and who later walked, and golfed, upon the moon. Shepard, who ultimately retired as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, was Derry born, bred and educated. And since I-93 opened back on June 28, 1963, his name has graced the 20-mile stretch of highway from near the border with Massachusetts almost to Manchester.
Now that the same highway has been widened to four lanes in both directions — double its original width — local, state and congressional officials met the week before last to rededicate it to Shepard. A new sign was unveiled during the gathering at the Derry garage, according to reporter Julie Huss’ account.
“Daddy would be very, very pleased,” said Laura Shepard Churchley, who attended with her sister Julie Shepard Jenkins.
So determined had been New Hampshire to honor Shepard with its new highway a half-century ago, the astronaut was invited to visit the construction site a year before the interstate opened to traffic. That’s when he tried his hand at some of the heavy equipment. Historian Richard Holmes notes that Shepard quipped “that the road building equipment was more difficult to operate than a space capsule.”
Regardless of whether that’s literally true — and few people apart from Shepard could know for sure — the grit and determination of the seven original Mercury astronauts, including Shepard, inspired a nation and helped the United States focus on a space race that was a proxy for the Cold War.
The 15-minute flight of Shepard’s Freedom 7 capsule in May 1961 did not reach orbit, as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had aboard the Vostok 1 not a month earlier. But the accomplishment gave momentum to America’s journey to the stars, and it sowed a pride in Shepard’s hometown that would continue to bear fruit generations later.
As Gov. Chris Sununu, who grew up in Salem, said at the rededication, “It was a very exciting thing growing up with an American hero and New Hampshire icon right up the road.”
And all of this — Shepard’s first spaceflight, and the opening of I-93 — happened before Shepard managed to make golf history 10 years later on one of the most exclusive ranges anywhere, the lunar surface. During the second of two moonwalks part of his Apollo 14 mission in February 1971, Shepard brought along a collapsable club. Actually it was a 6-iron head affixed to a pole used to pick up moon rocks.
Shepard shanked his first shot, and the second sailed only 40 yards, according to an account at the U.S. Golf Association’s website. The association keeps the original club at its museum in Liberty Corner, New Jersey, about 25 miles west of Newark. Churchley showed off a replica of the club the other day.
Safe to say the many exploits of Read Admiral Alan B. Shepard Jr. will continue to fire the imaginations of those in his hometown, and throughout the Merrimack Valley, for a long time to come. It’s certainly nice to be reminded when traveling the main corridor leading into and through southern New Hampshire.