U.S. Enters Space Age With Shepard Orbit In May 1961
Get into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you're likely to discover a subscriber of the Long Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper's name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).
Welcome to May 1961!
In the world of Major League Baseball, the health of Mickey Mantle seemed to be on everyone's mind. When Star-Journal sports reporter Jack Lang raised the question to the future baseball legend, Mantle modestly replied, "Who knows?
The only thing I can say is that I feel better than I have since I started playing for the Yankees. There isn't anything that bothers me. No pain in my knee or my shoulder. When I'm feeling good like this, things just seem to happen naturally."
A more skeptical Lang commented, "It is unlikely he can go through a full season without some physical ailment because it's never happened before in the 10 years he's been with the Yankees." Events would prove Lang right. This was the year Mantle and teammate Roger Maris vied to break Babe Ruth's single season home run record. Mantle yielded late in the season because of hip abscesses.
A rumor spread soon thereafter that the Yankees put out feelers to acquire venerable Dodger first baseman Gil Hodges. If this were to materialize, the Star-Journal felt Hodges would constitute an important addition to the team, but doubted that the Yanks could induce him to come aboard.
The Star-Journal ran an editorial longed for by the area's beleaguered National League fans since owners of the future ball club that was slated to play in Flushing Meadows had settled on a name: "The Mets…not the Metropolitans, please, but just 'The Mets'." At the same time, the editors seemed to be aware of the role fandom would play in molding the team's moniker: "Undoubtedly, our…fans will take care of the matter of finding a suitable name as the seasons roll by…a name based on the brand of ball the players give us. Let's hope it's good."
As Alan Shepard's space flight ushered America into the Space Age, few today realize that a local firm helped chronicle the historic event. The camera that recorded Shepard's "most beautiful sight" was actually manufactured by J.A. Mauer Inc. of 37-01 31st St. Daniel R. Ehrilch headed the Long Island City-based company, then a well-known manufacturer of photoreconnaissance systems for both military and civilian aircraft.
Remarkably, the Mauer Company developed the camera in just 120 days after the government requested one that could take large full-color pictures from "a capsule moving at supersonic speed." Weighing a bit more than seven-pounds, the most it could without offsetting the capsule's payload weight, the "Earth-Sky" 220-G rode alongside Shepard himself. With 500 precision parts and a long focus 2.8 lens, this special camera's quick shutter speed enabled it to take five photos a second. Ground technicians could operate it by remote control. All this, and it had to withstand stresses six times the force of gravity and temperatures that ranged from 32 degrees below zero to at least 160 degrees- truly amazing Space Age technology straight from the heart of Long Island City.
As the Cold War intensified, the Queens College Historical Society (a student organization) invited the first secretary of the Russian Mission to the United Nations, Nicholai Bourov, to discuss what university education was like in his country, though not without controversy. (Bourov had created a local furor two years before when he accepted an invitation to speak before the PTA of P.S. 193 in Whitestone.) But it turned out that the secretary spoke to a largely empty auditorium. According to the Star-Journal, "Students stayed away in droves, filling fewer than 50 of the 268 seats" in the lecture hall. To be perfectly fair, this was finals week and "final exams won".
Though some were quick to praise the mayor's initiative to send a "gripemobile" into Queens to heed constituency concerns (the mayor referred to it as his "Mobile City Hall"), Douglaston residents nevertheless took to griping over how the trailer assigned to do the job would head into only Jamaica to do it. One resident summed up what he felt was the administration's counter-intuitiveness: "Sending the gripemobile to Queens is an excellent idea but why not send it to Jamaica for one day and for the other days send it to Flushing, Astoria, Douglaston, Little Neck and Whitestone? This way, [Mayor Robert Wagner] can get a complete picture of the situation and not just the views of Jamaica people." Shortly thereafter, it was agreed that the gripemobile would be of greatest use making rounds borough-wide to assess the state of local libraries.
As city officials studied plans to convert Welfare Island to an "ultra modern" community (what would become the Roosevelt Island of today) the Star-Journal commented on the "grandiose plan" to get rid of Welfare Island's buildings- save one- to construct a $500 million, 70,000 person, housing development financed largely with public credit. To the editors, the details constituted a bright future awaiting what later became Roosevelt Is-land.
How to finance the project was one question; how so many inhabitants would move between their new homes to their jobs in the city was another. "Ingenuity and optimism have conquered greater obstacles; maybe they can conquer these," the Star-Journal's editors noted. "And optimism is a quality promoters have never been short of. At the moment the point that intrigues us is that the developers propose to bar all automobiles from the island. Ah, Paradise!"
That's the way it was in May 1961!
The latest in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series, The Queensboro Bridge, is available through the Greater Astoria Historical Society or at local stores. The story of the bridge that built a borough, the book is crammed with hundreds of images of the borough's favorite bridge, tracing its history from blueprints to the eve of its 100th birthday.
The Greater Astoria Historical Society meets on the first Monday of every month from September through June at Quinn's Gallery in the Thomas M. Quinn & Sons Funeral Home, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City.
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For more information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org.