In was on this day, May 5th, back in 1961 that the United States successfully launched its first manned space mission with Alan Shepherd at the controls. It had been a long time coming. After all, Russia had jumped out in front during the early years of the space race by launching Sputnik, a small orbiting satellite, back in 1957, and the powers that be in the U.S. didn’t like that one bit. Their response was to formulate a plan to gain technological control of space for our country – proving once and for all that we were superior to the Russians.
Then, in April, 1961, Russia once again showed its superiority in space by launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin successfully into orbit for 108 minutes – the first human to circle the earth in space. While Gagarin didn’t have the ability to control his spacecraft, the feat was still remarkable. Less than a month later, Shepherd flew a sub-orbital flight of not much more than 15 minutes. Unlike Gagarin, he had some control over the capsule and while he technically entered space, the U.S. was still behind the Russian effort. Shepherd, in a nod to the 7 original Mercury astronauts, named his capsule “Freedom 7” – and following his flight, he became a national hero.
The testing to become a Mercury astronaut was rigorous to say the least. Many people applied and the competition was so strong that test pilots were the overwhelming majority of those who were considered for the six prime spots. However, when all the testing and evaluations were completed, even those in charge couldn’t limit the selection to six. Instead, they ended up with a total of seven Mercury astronauts, the best of the best, to lead the charge into space.
Shepherd, the first, was followed by Gus Grissom, who flew another suborbital flight and then John Glenn, who successfully completed three orbits of the earth before returning home. Grissom named his capsule “Liberty Bell 7” and Glenn’s capsule was named, appropriately, “Friendship 7.” These brave men were followed by three other Mercury flights; Scott Carpenter (Aurora 7), Wally Schirra (Sigma 7) and Gordon Cooper (Faith 7). Deke Slayton, the seventh Mercury astronaut, developed a heart murmur and didn’t fly in the Mercury program at all. Eventually, Deke became head of the astronaut office and finally flew in a joint Russian-U.S. program years later.
Although it took 8-1/2 years to do, we landed men on the moon in July, 1969 – a feat the Russians have yet to accomplish fifty years later. Many of our heroic astronauts flew multiple times and some were certainly more recognizable that others – John Glenn, for instance, who also holds the honor as the oldest person to travel in space.
Our verse for tonight is from the prophet Isaiah. He was the first to point out that the earth was round and it is said that Columbus referenced this Bible verse as evidence that he would not sail off the end of the world on his travels, during which he is was given credit for discovering America. Isaiah tells us, in Isaiah 40:21-22, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”
The part of the verse about the circle (or sphere) of the earth is the reference that Columbus used for his “evidence” that the earth was round. And while this was later proven by many people, Alan Shepherd was the first American to actually see the curvature of the earth from space and lead the way to eventually landing on the moon. In fact, Shepherd also flew another mission into space ten years later and became the fifth man to walk on the moon as the lunar module pilot during Apollo 14, which completed its lunar landing on February 15, 1971.
My encouragement this evening is that God created the earth as a perfect “nest” for mankind. From the beginning in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, God desired to walk with us in community. My prayer is that we will all grow closer to our Creator and enjoy the communion with the One who created us! Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace…