ANNAPOLIS – The U.S. Naval Academy unveiled its newest display Wednesday: the capsule that carried the first American into space, Adm. Alan B. Shepard.
The Freedom 7, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 5, 1961, is on a five-year loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The academy is displaying it as a tribute to the school’s 50 alumni who became astronauts, including Shepard, a 1944 graduate.
Some of the first guests to see the Freedom 7, still unprotected by plexiglass, were 8th-grade students from John Poole Middle School in Poolesville.
Lt. Leslie Hull-Ryde, spokeswoman for the academy and an exhibit organizer, described Shepard’s trip to the students as a roller-coaster ride stretching the distance from where they were sitting to Paramount’s Kings Dominion in Virginia.
“It’s kind of neat that we get to see it first because it’s a real piece of history, and it’s not in a case yet,” said student Suzie Dundas, 12.
The 2,000-pound, bell-shaped capsule is in the same condition as when it landed in the Atlantic Ocean 37 years ago.
“We don’t restore it so you can see that it came back through the atmosphere and got dinged in the process,” said Amanda Young, a museum specialist at the Smithsonian.
The 15-minute, 28-second flight proved to Americans that humans could control a craft while weightless and under high pressure.
Inside the lower half of the capsule lies a space suit-clad manikin with his right hand on the lever to control the movement of the shuttle and his left hand on the emergency abort lever.
“He was pretty cramped up in there, and I bet he was kind of lonely,” said student David McAleer, 13. “But I think I’m brave enough to have done it.”
Shepard saw space in a mirror positioned to reflect the scene from the six-inch-wide porthole window to his left.
According to Allan Needell, chairman of the museum Space History Division, Shepard said, “Boy, what a view.”
Hull-Ryde sought since spring to incorporate the craft into the new “Grads in Space” show at the Naval Academy, after the Freedom 7 returned from a Smithsonian traveling treasures program.
Shepard’s death July 22 lends special significance to Freedom 7’s display, said a 1981 Naval Academy graduate and Mir Mission astronaut, Cmdr. Wendy Lawrence.
The display “will provide inspiration for many of the midshipmen with the same dream I had: to become an astronaut,” Lawrence said.
Hull-Ryde plans to project an image of the earth on the curved wall behind the craft. An explanation of the Navy’s contribution to the space program and a four-minute video chronicling Shepard’s career will accompany the display.
On Friday at 6 p.m., Naval Academy graduate and astronaut Capt. James Lovell will give a speech at the display, in the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center, to help celebrate the Freedom 7’s arrival. -30-