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When Laura Shepard Churchley strapped herself in the Blue Origin rocket ship to travel into space in December, she says she felt right at home. Maybe that’s because as the daughter of Alan Shepard, …
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When Laura Shepard Churchley strapped herself in the Blue Origin rocket ship to travel into space in December, she says she felt right at home.
Maybe that’s because as the daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space, space flight is in Laura’s blood.
“It felt like I had been doing it my whole life,” she said while sitting in the living room of her Evergreen home. “I knew I would go into space. I don’t know why.”
Laura, 74, flew aboard the New Shepard named in honor of her father. In 11 minutes, the spacecraft took her and five additional crew members 66 miles above the Earth, about half the distance her father went 60 years prior in the Mercury-Redstone 3. Alan was the second man and the first American to travel into space.
In 1971, Alan commanded Apollo 14 and was the fifth person to walk on the moon, hitting two golf balls while there.
“She got to follow in her dad’s footsteps,” said Laura’s husband of 25 years, Fred Churchley. “Knowing how much she loved and respected her dad, this is a full-circle moment for her — for her dad and his legacy. Five years ago, even a year ago, I didn’t think it could happen.”
Laura’s daughter, Lark Stewart, said her mom had no doubt or fear about the space flight.
“That’s how we were raised, how she was raised,” Stewart said, calling her mom generous and someone who doesn’t sit still.
“Whatever she does, she does it with a big heart and a lot of energy,” Stewart said. “If she is awake, she is on.”
A child of a NASA astronaut
Laura remembers the moment her dad told the family in 1959 that he was going to be an astronaut for the newly created NASA, noting that no one in the family knew what that meant.
“I looked up `astronaut’ in the dictionary,” she said, “and the word wasn’t there.”
She knew, though, that her dad was very excited about the prospect of being among the first seven astronauts — known as the Mercury 7 — in the country.
When Alan left for his first flight into space in 1961, Laura told him to have a good trip — similar to what her grandchildren said as she was leaving for the Blue Origin flight.
Laura, an eighth grader in boarding school, was in the middle of an English test when her dad made his first voyage into space. She says she knew everything would go well, though she was mortified at being sent to the headmaster’s house to watch the flight with a room full of the school’s dignitaries. She was more concerned she would have to talk to them.
After Alan’s flight ended, Laura said she was happy and a bit teary-eyed, not really caring anymore about the English test.
The Shepard family’s notoriety was something to get used to, and she’s been to the White House twice with her dad. There were ticker-tape parades, Life magazine photo spreads and people recognizing the Shepards everywhere they went.
She says NASA astronauts and their families share a special bond and keep in touch, like a huge extended family.
Laura’s move to Evergreen
Laura wound up in Evergreen thanks to astronaut Wally Schirra — “I was their second daughter” — who told her she should live here. Laura moved in 1978 and opened a shoe store in downtown Evergreen called the “The Glass Slipper” that she operated for eight years.
However, she had been in Colorado many times before locating to Evergreen. The Shepards took two-week skiing trips each year, the only time Laura remembers the entire family together because Alan was training all the time.
Over the years, she’s been a board member of the Evergreen Area Chamber of Commerce, the Evergreen Arts Foundation, Hiwan Homeowners Association and the Montessori School of Evergreen.
11 minutes in history
Laura said she was well prepared for her 11-minute space flight after 16 hours of intense training at the Blue Origin launch site in Van Horn, Texas.
As she heard the countdown, her dad’s words were in her head: “Let’s light this candle.”
She enjoyed blastoff because if reminded her of when she was a girl, and her dad drove his Corvette and floored it, pushing her back into the seat.
She said space was beautiful and she could see the curve of the Earth, the blackness of space and the blue atmosphere. Being weightless was fun, as she and her fellow crew members did flips and threw small footballs in honor of retired football player Michael Strahan, who was also on the flight.
“As Daddy said, `We came back to Earth safely,’” Laura explained.
She took items into space for her grandchildren because not many people can say their grandmother went into space.
“Daddy would have loved that I did this,” she said. “He would have said, `Go for it.’”
Furthering space flight
Laura said it didn’t dawn on her as a young woman to strive to become an astronaut because women weren’t allowed in the NASA astronaut program. However, she became involved with the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which was started in 1984 by the original Mercury 7 astronauts.
As chair of the board of trustees, Laura is proud of the 60 scholarships given yearly to support scholars in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — while commemorating the legacy of America’s pioneering astronauts.
“If I could influence young girls to go into space,” she said, “that is what I want to do.”
Laura enjoys making presentations about space flight to students, donning her father’s flight suit — even though he never wore it into space — and showing artifacts from his time at NASA. Now, she’s thinking about wearing her own flight suit because it — and she — have been in space.
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