Souls That Left the Earth: Astronaut Graves

March 15, 2013 — It seems weird to stick the remains of those who have literally left this earth into that same earth, to take the bodies of men and women who have floated thousands of miles above its surface and bury them six feet below it, but what else are we going to do with dead astronauts? Start a lunar cemetery?

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.

Of course, he didn’t stay in the Granite state, opting instead to go abroad…like sub-orbital space abroad, missing out on being the first human being outside the atmosphere by less than a month to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. A little more than a decade later he finally got to one-up Yuri when, at the age of 47 when the rest of us mortals are busy starting to worry about our 401K, he played golf on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission.

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.”

Astronaut Grave No. 2 is also in New Hampshire. This astro-grave is 30 miles northwest of Derry in the capital city of Concord. She is also an extremely famous astronaut, for both inspirational and tragic reasons.

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.

It all started in 1984. Ronald Reagan was running the country like a Hollywood movie. It’s one of the reasons the 80s were so great. In this movie, they wanted to send a civilian into space, a teacher specifically. There were a lot of reasons for this, all falling under the category of PR. For instance, they wanted to demonstrate the absolute safety of the space program, gain more public interest and funding for it, highlight education as a priority for the administration. And from all the teachers in the country and 11,000 applicants in total, this history and social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was anointed.

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.”

The third astronaut grave that I’ve been to is way farther south…in Lake City, South Carolina. Unlike these other two graves that are also monuments to these astronauts, this one is more like a monument that’s also a grave.

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.

The rest of McNair’s story you can learn directly from the monument. It’s in two parts, all of which cover a large swathe of ground. One is the tomb itself, a human-sized block of stone surrounded by a moat-like fountain and gas-flame lanterns. The other, adjacent to the tomb but not so close that it’s easy to get a good picture of the two together, is a full-sized statue of McNair. It depicts him holding his helmet under his arm and backdrops him with a large polished stone slab that acts as his CV.

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.

The reason we can visit his grave is that he was also aboard the Challenger with Christa McAuliffe on that terrible winter day. It was to be his second time in space, the first having been aboard that same vessel two years previously.

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.