Whoa…sometimes great ideas happen just like that.
Until we get that lunatic graveyard, we’ll have to make do with what humble traditions we have to honor the amazing lives of these adventurous representatives of our species...our astronauts (or whatever your country calls yours).
I haven’t been to a lot of ’naut graves. Just three. Well, two and a fake one. And my editor tells me that’s enough for a post. Let’s start there with the fake grave.
We call fake graves cenotaphs, or more precisely, we call fake gravestones cenotaphs. It’s kind of like when you want an original piece of art but have to settle for a print. In this case, when the real deal is buried elsewhere or lost for whatever reason, and a family or a cemetery or a city still wants this person memorialized within their graveyard gates, they install a cenotaph.
And, in this case, that real deal is the real deal indeed…Alan Shepard.
That’s right. We’re talking about the first American to breathe space and one of the top two most famous astronauts to date. Shepard was born in the humble little New Hampshire town of Derry. He grew up there, went to school there, even had his first flying lesson at the nearby private airport.
After that mission, Shepard finally decided to live the rest of his life among us mere earthbound, although in a much more prominent state of the Union than New Hampshire. He died in 1998 in California, as did his wife, and both of their ashes were scattered in the ocean.
But the Shepard family plot is still in Derry (technically East Derry) in Forest Hill Cemetery on East Derry Road. So a stone plaque was placed there that says “Here does not lie Alan Shepard, although had he been less of a man, he might have.”
Christa McAuliffe wasn’t a pilot or a scientist. She didn’t have a high-ranking family member in NASA. She was a high school teacher. And yet, in 1986, she found herself strapped to the top of two 150-foot-tall rockets aimed at anywhere but here. She was the first ever civilian tapped for space. God damn, what a ride.
Unfortunately, the mission she was chosen for was what history would eventually call the Challenger Disaster. On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger started shuttling its crew of seven astronauts into the Great Void…and then changed course for the Great Beyond. It disintegrated 73 seconds after lift-off due to a faulty piece of rubber. God damn, what a ride. Sometimes movies have unhappy endings.
McAuliffe never technically made it into space, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t an astronaut. She did the training. She wore the blue. She rode the rocket.
Her grave is easy to find at Blossom Hill Cemetery on North State Street in Concord. The stone that marks it is space-black and sits directly under a tree. A nearby planetarium is named in her honor. Her grave does not say, “She rode the rocket.”
It belongs to and memorializes Ronald E. McNair. It’s not located in a cemetery, but next to a library at 235 East Main St., a library named after him and which plays an interesting part in his story.
McNair grew up in segregated Lake City, South Carolina in the 1950s. When he was eight years old, he tried to borrow books from the local library, but was refused for not being page-colored. He raised a righteous fuss and, after his mom and the police were called, the library relented and let him borrow the books. He got the last laugh not only when the place was renamed after him decades later, but when his body was interred right beside it.
Using only that memorial as a source, I learned that he knew karate, played the sax, had a wife and two children, was religious, was from that town, and was a physicist. All of these facts are given equal weight and their own small icon on the slab. However, the one accomplishment that is physically emphasized over all of these, is the large space shuttle angled to look like it’s about to leave the monument.
Incidentally, these are some pretty important astronauts. The first American in space. The first civilian headed to space. The second black man in space. However, I do long for the day when we have no more firsts and seconds of this nature in space, when leaving the planet is as old hat as traveling from New Hampshire to South Carolina.
So in a way, it’s a good and appropriate thing to inter these celestial men and women on our home turf as reminders. We’re all dust…but dust capable of being so much more. Let’s get off this freaking planet.