In 1961, when I was 9 years old, I built a spaceship. It was made of cardboard, and it sat on a launching pad in the driveway in front of my house. My mother and father parked on the street in front of our house for several days before the scheduled launch so as to avoid running over my space craft.
I tried to make my spaceship look like Freedom 7, the rocket America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepherd had flown into space that spring. I named my spaceship “Billy 7” and proudly painted the title in red along the side of the cockpit.
Billy 7 did not have a booster rocket like Freedom 7 to blast it into space. It was just a cardboard capsule, but I was convinced it would magically lift off my driveway and take me to the final frontier.
Inside Billy 7 you could find the same equipment one would find in Freedom 7. Billy 7 had a radio, albeit a Japanese transistor one in a leather case. It was the same radio I used to listen to Harry Carey broadcast Cardinals baseball games. But in my space capsule, Harry was no longer the voice of the Cardinals from St. Louis, he was the voice of mission control in Houston.
I also had in my spaceship a jar of Tang, the orange powdery substance that was the official drink of the Mercury astronauts. I also had a bottle of water and a spoon so I could mix my space beverage. And to complete by nutritional space staple, I had a box of Oreo cookies.
On the morning of the launch, I crawled into Billy 7 wearing my space suit: a white football helmet, a grey sweatshirt, grey sweatpants, and a pair of U.S. Keds.
As systems were go! 10…9…8…7…6…5…4...3…2…1…Blastoff!
I then lifted off from my driveway into space. “It’s a real fire ball!” I reported to Harry Carey on my radio.
I expected weightlessness, not so much because I was in space, but because I weighed only 40 pounds!
After a brief suborbital flight, I returned to Earth, as Billy 7 and I were protected on re-entry by an aluminum foil heat shield.
I splashed down back in my driveway, the splash being accomplished with the help of a water sprinkler in our front yard.
I had taken one small step for a boy, and one giant leap for my imagination.
I never returned to space. But over the next several years I watched my fellow astronauts make their trips. On February 20, 1962, sitting in my fourth grade class, I saw Lt. Col. John Glenn blast into orbit.
In the years thereafter, I saw astronauts Scott Carpenter, Wally Shirra, and Gordo Cooper also blast into space in black and white my TV screen.
And then on July 20, 1969, I sat in the lobby of a dormitory at Northwestern University and watched Neal Armstrong on a television screen take that one small step and one giant leap.
Over the next 20 years or so, I saw numerous other space missions, from five more moon landings, to the space shuttle, including the terrible Challenger disaster in 1986.
I also enjoyed space travel by watching Star Trek and “The Jetsons.”
And then about ten years ago, the last shuttle mission was flown, and suddenly Americans were no longer going into space.
But over the past two weeks, I have witnessed the two latest space missions: Billionaires in space! I watched Richard Branson fly, or rather ride Virgin Galactic, and this week I saw Jeff Bezos ride “New Shepard” of Blue Origin. Both flights were brief, no longer than Alan Shepherd’s flight on Freedom 7 or my flight on Billy 7.
The billionaires in space brought back memories of my own flight nearly 60 years ago.
Jeff Bezos has now said that I may soon be able to join him in space on a Blue Origin flight. The current price for a ticket is $28,000,000, but Bezos said by the end of this decade, tickets may be a mere $200,000. Still pretty expensive, but I would imagine it comes with about a million frequent flyer miles.
Unless I win the Powerball, I doubt I will be joining the billionaires in space. I may just build me another cardboard spaceship in my driveway, sit in it and remember what it was like to be a 9 year old boy blasting into space.