Rocket man: Laura Churchley shares memories of her high-flying father

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By Stephen Knapp

As it's been precisely 40 years since mankind first planted foot and flag on the lunar surface, Mountain Foothills Rotary Club program director Jim Rohrer thought it would be nice to schedule a speaker with a little moon dust on her shoes.

Of course, former senator John Glenn is famously hard to book on short notice, and actor Scott Glenn isn't a real astronaut. As luck would have it, though, Rohrer didn't have to scour the cosmos to find a fitting guide to the stars — he just picked up the phone.

"Laura," he said, not even trying to resist the temptation, "has got the right stuff."

An Evergreen resident for more than 30 years, Laura Churchley has twice been invited to the White House, has met six American presidents, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford and Tom Selleck's mother, and has been the guest of honor, once removed, at a genuine New York City ticker-tape parade. She's also a friendly, down-to-earth soul, the mother of two Evergreen High School graduates, an engaging public speaker, and the eldest child of Rear Adm. Alan Shepard. But while the rest of the country reveres her father as a fearless Navy test pilot, the first American to travel in space and the capable mission commander of America's third manned moon shot, to Laura he remains just plain "Daddy."

"One day when I was in seventh grade, Daddy took me outside into the front yard to look at the sky," said Churchley, addressing the rapt crowd of Rotarians gathered in the lofty Aspen Room at Mount Vernon Country Club on Sep. 9. "It was daytime, so I didn't know what we were supposed to be looking for. Then we saw Sputnik go over. Daddy was furious, but I didn't understand what the big deal was. It was the start of the space race."

On May 5, 1961, less than a month after Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth, Shepard put the U.S. on the scoreboard with a perilous suborbital space flight aboard Friendship 7. Despite the fact that her father had what was arguably the most dangerous job in the world, Alan and Louise Shepard managed to spare Laura and her two younger sisters much of the worry that came with the territory.

"I'm grateful that my parents introduced the whole thing to us without fear," explained Churchley, who, as a Navy brat with a very talented father, attended six schools before the ninth grade. "In 1961 there wasn't really a word for what Daddy did — 'astronaut' wasn't in the dictionary yet. We weren't afraid for him because, to us, Daddy was just doing what he was supposed to do. He was just doing his job."

Still, it would've been impossible for one of the nation's highest profiles to shield his family entirely. On the morning of Jan. 31, 1971, the Shepard children woke to a dense galaxy of cameras and cruisers parked in front of their normally quiet suburban home.

"There were all these policemen and all these police dogs keeping the press away from the house," Churchley recalls with a smile. "My little sister said, 'Mommy must have done something really bad.' It was the day of Daddy's Apollo XIV launch.

"Our lives changed overnight. Nobody was ready for the publicity. Everybody wanted to shake Daddy's hand; everybody wanted his autograph. Even today our family still deals with the publicity. When my daughter graduated high school in 1991, her grandfather didn't come to the ceremony, not because he didn't want to be there, but because he wanted her to have her own day in the sun."

And Churchley brought along much more than top-flight stories about growing up NASA. She held up a rather elaborate, shoebox-size artifact made of flexible white plastic — an instrument case, maybe, or a sophisticated lunar sample repository.

"Do you know what this is?" she asked, her mischievous grin answering her own question. "It's a tissue box." She opened it and yanked out a sheet or two to prove it. "This tissue box went to the moon on Apollo XIV."

Then Churchley passed around her dad's leather flight jacket ("The Smithsonian would love to get their hands on this"), dark and supple with age, and thickly sewn with the accumulated patches that tell a pilot's story more surely than words.

"I was a pilot for 40 years and spent 30 years in the U.S. Army," said Bud Hermanson, regretfully surrendering the heavy garment to a fellow Rotarian. "Pilots in the military are a common calling, but somewhere along the line they have to have a standard-bearer. Alan Shepard was such a person. Alan Shepard was a pilot's pilot, and it was a thrill for me just to hold his jacket."

Less evocative, perhaps, but no less fascinating was the substantial plastic brick Churchley brought out next.

"Stuart Roosa loved SOSs," she explained. "That stands for 'sausage and onion sandwich.' Gene Cernan was on the backup crew for Daddy's mission, and he was a joker. They were in outer space on the way to the moon, and out floats this SOS, all wrapped up so crumbs wouldn't get all over the capsule. After the mission they encased it in plastic, and it came to me somehow."

And there it was, passing from hand to hand looking perfectly soft, fresh and downright appetizing beneath its clear, inch-thick wrapper.

"It was the first, and probably only, time I've ever held such an article in my hand," said Hermanson, almost certainly meaning an extraterrestrial sandwich, rather than sandwiches in general. "Personally, I'm in awe of something that's been to the moon and back."

Finally, Churchley produced a collapsible metal tube with a sturdy wedge attached at one end. Before becoming the first human being to golf in one-sixth gravity, her dad commissioned a guy to weld a driving head onto a kind of all-purpose astronaut tool just to make sure it could be done. And the rest, as they say at St. Andrews, is duffer history.

"He was an out-of-this-world golfer," said Rohrer, looking pleased with himself.

In 2006, the Navy invited Churchley to San Diego, where she sponsored what could be considered her famous father's final launch — the official unveiling of the USNS Alan Shepard, a state-of-the-art, 24,000-ton Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo vessel now on duty in the Pacific. Last week, Churchley capped her presentation with an audio/visual montage combining images of the ship's wetting ceremony with footage of blue-water operations she took during a brief cruise aboard her dad's mighty namesake.

"Before I went I had no idea what a big deal it was to sponsor a ship's launching," she said. "The Navy treated me like 'Queen for a Day.' "

And she's still a queen in the realm of space. These days, Churchley sits on the boards of the Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kan., and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation in Titus, Fla., and she's currently organizing the AstroKids Club with Ed White III, whose father and two fellow astronauts perished in 1965 when their launch vehicle caught on fire during a training exercise.

While Churchley plainly enjoyed sharing memories of her father as much as Mountain Foothills Rotary enjoyed hearing them, she considers Alan Shepard's gallant example to be much more than a timely history lesson.

"Look at all the great things that came out of the space program, like medical technologies, computers, cell phones, even Velcro," she said. "We need to go to Mars; we need to get back into space. That adventurous spirit is what keeps us moving forward."