Celebrating Alan B. Shepard’s launch into space 55 years ago

  • Written by By Kelly White

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He flew on a Mercury spacecraft with just enough room for one person. He named his capsule Freedom 7.

Honoring the 55th anniversary of this memorial event, Shepard High School Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps (JROTC) and art club students worked together to create a mural depicting Shepard’s historic flight. The high school is named in honor of the astronaut.

“Shepard’s first flight only lasted 15 minutes, but it put on display the traits that made him a legend. As he trained for his flight, he saw countless rockets blow up on the launch pad,” said Major Daniel Johnson, of Shepard’s JROTC. “There was no guarantee that he would safely return from this mission, but he set aside any fears he had, and bravely stepped into the capsule that day. He put his confidence in the team of professionals who held his life in their hands, and they delivered as promised.”

“Working on this project as a group has brought us together and built lasting memories and friendships forever,” said Worth resident Emily Seman, an art club member.

The two organizations have been working on the mural, which stands 80 feet high and 12 feet long, for a year and a half. The mural’s unveiling was held at the high school, 13049 S Ridgeland Ave., Palos Heights, last Thursday afternoon, the anniversary of Shepard’s flight.

The huge mural has consumed a lot of time and effort, but the students have learned a great deal about collaborative efforts,” said Brenda Rentfro, Shepard’s art club sponsor. “This is the most important part of art club. Since creating art is often a solitary activity, it is vital for young artists to understand how to support and learn from each other.”

There are 25 students making up Shepard’s art club and 125 JROTC students. The JROTC aided in the design process and supplied painting materials.

“This has been a long process, but it has been very rewarding,” said Johnson. “I've received many positive comments from staff and students who appreciate the work of art. It really has taken away the sterile, institutional feel of this part of the school.”

JROTC is a military regulated high school program whose purpose is to educate high school students in leadership roles while making them aware of the benefits of citizenship. The mission of JROTC is to motivate young people to become better American citizens.

“From the JROTC standpoint, I enjoy being able to point out specific planes as we talk about them in the classroom,” Johnson said.

“The mural looks really cool,” said JROTC member Andrew Kuntz, of Palos Heights. “I like how you can see aviation throughout the history.”

The mural is a depiction of the history of aviation, beginning with the Wright Flyer (December 1903) up to the F-22 Raptor (current top of the line fighter plane). The mural also includes Eugene Bullard, the first African American pilot from World War I; Bessie Coleman, a legendary Chicago aviatrix and the first African American woman to fly a plane; and Major Richard Bong’s P-38 Lightning from World War II. Bong was the Ace of Aces in WWII, with 40 confirmed Japanese airplanes shot down.

The red-tailed P-51s of the Tuskegee Airmen, escorting a B-17 during World War II; the F-86, a legend during the Korean War; Shepard’s rocket and capsule; A U-2 aircraft that played a pivotal role in averting the Cuban Missile Crisis and is still in use today; and the B-52 Bomber, from Vietnam to present day, still a mainstayof the Air Force are included in the mural.

As the two organizations were putting the mural together they realized that from their standpoint (112 years after the Wright Brothers), Shepard's first space flight would fall right in the middle of that timeline. After this realization, students then, in the center of the mural, depicted the Redstone Rocket going up and Shepard's capsule returning to Earth. The rest of the planes depict various eras and famous pilots or aircraft from history, according to Rentfro.

Located outside of the JROTC classrooms, in a common hallway in the high school, Rentfro said strategic design was very important when deciding how to paint.

“What makes this particular mural unique is that it is physically huge,” she said. “It is also in an athletic area, where various equipment will bump and scrape the wall sometimes. We tried to make the lower half complex enough to make any damage hard to notice.”

The art club was supplied with paint, critiques, and moral support by the JROTC staff and students, Rentfro said.

“All of the unavoidable frustrations were made smaller by their interest in the project,” Rentfro said. “It is rare for non-artists to understand the amount of time and effort we put into our work. A formal dedication is an honor as large as the project itself.”

“Working on the mural allowed me to expand my art experience, make great friends, and have memories to look back on,” said Crestwood resident Lily Fisher, an art club member. “It also gave me the chance to leave a part of me for the school.”