Re-entry of the First American in Space
Flight of Mercury-Redstone 3, Callsign Freedom 7
Command Pilot: Alan B. Shepherd Jr
May 5th 1961
The poets were wrong:
the ocean is not unkillable,
the snow is not eternal.
The Earth turns in the depths
like a cat’s eye limned
by a distant headlight.
Then there’s this ionized,
candescent, compression of air,
a husk of oxygen and nitrogen.
The view from inside a marshmallow
in a camp fire, all blue and hot,
fizzing into plasma, circumzenithal.
Through the plumes,
black horizons, perfectly skyless
spinning above the afternoon,
glittering pack-ice clouds, below
or above these glass deltas of ocean
releaseless, frozen sleek,
at 17,000 miles per hour, tilting away
and back into the viewport,
the altimeter turning anti-clockwise
and your face pinches itself,
you reach against gravity for the drogue
handle, twisting it and a noise
like the crump of a burst tyre
behind your head, in the crosshairs
the jellyfish red and whites
of the main capsule parachute…
lurching against the straps.
Splashdown with no smell of salt
but foam – how it is, polystyrene
and car seats, and your own breath
in the helmet, with a tap-water plitter
that could be the heat shield, your ears
adjusting, or a ruptured seal,
the panel shows cabin pressure
is green. Zoopraxiascopic shadows—
It is, helicopter blades, shuttering.
Over the clanks of the Atlantic
naming the sound of home,
“Thank you very much, it’s a beautiful day.”