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Shepard, Alanfree

(18 November 1923–21 July 1998)
  • Bruce L. Janoff

Alan Shepard, ca. 1959.

Alan Shepard, ca. 1959.
Courtesy of NASA (NIX #: MSFC-8772553).

Shepard, Alan (18 November 1923–21 July 1998), astronaut, was born Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., in East Derry, New Hampshire, the son of Alan B.Shepard, a retired Army colonel and insurance broker, and Renza Emerson Shepard. As a boy, Shepard loved to tinker with car and boat motors and spent many happy childhood hours building model airplanes. In his 1962 essay, “The Urge to Pioneer,” Shepard recalled, “I was raised, if not exactly in an atmosphere of aviation, at least in the midst of mechanical things” ( We Seven, p. 65). In high school at Pinkerton Academy in Derry where he excelled in mathematics, the fledgling aviator took odd jobs at the local airport in exchange for airplane rides and became obsessed with flying.

Influenced by his father's military background, Shepard studied for one year at Admiral Farragut Academy in New Jersey and earned an appointment to the U.S. Naval Adademy in Annapolis, Maryland. After graduating in the middle of his class in 1944, Shepard was commissioned as an ensign, and during the closing months of World War II he served on the destroyer Cogswell in the Pacific theater. In 1945 Shepard married Louise Brewer; the couple had two daughters and raised a niece as their third child. After the war, Shepard took flight training at navy schools in Texas and Florida. He received his wings in 1947 and was assigned to Fighter Squadron 42 out of Norfolk, Virginia. In 1948 and 1949 he served two tours of duty flying fighter jets aboard aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean.

The major break in Shepard's career came in 1950 when, still a lieutanant, junior grade, he was one of only three junior officers chosen to attend the navy test pilot school at Patuxent River, Maryland. After qualifying as a test pilot, Shepard helped perfect advanced navy aircraft, experimented with high altitude flying, worked on in-flight refueling systems, and conducted suitability trials with F2H3 Banshee jet landings on angled carrier decks. After tours on carriers in the Pacific from 1953 to 1956, Shepard returned to Patuxent as an instructor for the test pilot school and won a prized appointment to the Naval War College. Upon graduation in 1958, he was assigned to the staff of the commander-in-chief, Atlantic Fleet. At this point during his rapid rise through the naval ranks, Shepard had accumulated some 37,000 hours' flying time—1,800 in jet aircraft—and became a prime candidate for the manned space flight program being planned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

From the 110 top military test pilots invited to volunteer for NASA's Project Mercury, Shepard was one of seven elite flyers chosen to train as America's first astronauts. In the spring of 1959, along with John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Donald “Deke” Slayton, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, and Walter Schirra, Shepard began an intense two-year physical, psychological and scientific regimen covering every conceivable aspect of space flight, from astronomy, astrophysics, and astronautics to meteorology and aviation biology. Furthermore, under rigorous simulated conditions, he experienced virtually all physical sensations that could be involved in actual space flight, including the effects of excessive G-forces and weightlessness.

Shepard reached the pinnacle of his career on 21 February 1961 when Robert Gilruth, the director of Project Mercury, informed Shepard that he had been chosen as the prime pilot for America's first mission into space. The launch was scheduled for 12 March but because a test flight with a chimpanzee had gone badly, it was decided that another unmanned test of the massive seven-story Redstone rocket was necessary. In the meantime, on April 12, Russian cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin became the first human to enter space when his Vostok I spacecraft completed one full orbit around the planet. Shepard was bitterly disappointed by the delay, and he was even more frustrated when his next scheduled launch was postponed for three days due to bad weather. Finally, at 9:34 a.m. on 5 May, 1961, twenty-three days after Gagarin's historic flight, Shepard blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in his Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, reaching an altitude of 115 miles and a velocity of 5,180 miles per hour, which pulled a maximum G-force of eleven. Moreover, in contrast to the Soviet policy of secrecy, the dramatic launch of Freedom 7 was broadcast live around the world.

When, at the most critical moment, a cool and collected Shepard radioed NASA's Mission Control that “Everything is A-O.K.!” democratic societies everywhere rejoiced over this major technological triumph, and the 37-year-old naval commander became an authentic American hero. His entire suborbital flight was nearly flawless. It had barely penetrated the borders of outer space and had lasted just fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds, including a five-minute period of weightlessness, but its symbolic political importance was incalculable. Although Gagarin had been in space for a longer time and had traveled at a much higher velocity, his flight was fully automated and he had been, in a sense, merely a passenger. In contrast, Shepard took over manual control of his spaceship and expertly conducted a series of precise maneuvers. His splashdown and recovery, viewed by millions on live television, were perfect. After a whirlwind round of debriefings and medical examinations, he was invited to the White House, awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and was honored by ticker-tape parades not seen since the days of Charles Lindbergh. Twenty days after the flight, in the boldest of mission statements, President John F. Kennedy announced to Congress and the world that America “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

Alan Shephard, left, with President John F. Kennedy, receiving the Distinguished Service Award in May, 1962.

Courtesy of NASA (GPN-2000-001479).

As a central figure in Kennedy's grand plan, Shepard was next assigned to be Mission Control's capsule communicator for Grissom's suborbital flight (a rerun of Shepard's Freedom 7 mission) and for Glenn's famous triple orbiting of the earth aboard Friendship 7 in February 1962. In May 1963 Shepard was scheduled to pilot the final Mercury mission, but NASA cancelled the flight in order to develop the new Gemini program, which featured a two-man crew. Shepard had just begun training for the first manned Gemini flight in 1963 when he developed a serious inner-ear disorder diagnosed as labyrinthitis (Meuniere's syndrome), which grounded him for eight years.

Still fully committed to the advancement of America's space program, Shepard became Chief of NASA's Astronaut Office and ruled all aspects of astronaut training and flight scheduling with an iron hand. In his autobiography, Leap of Faith (2000), Gordon Cooper complains bitterly that Shepard played politics in selecting crews for Gemini and Apollo missions (pp. 176-82). Shepard did play hardball as an administrator and never wavered from his ambition to return to space. After a successful operation on his inner ear in 1969, he found a place for himself as commander of the nine-day flight of Apollo 14 (31 Jan.-9 Feb. 1971), and on 5 February he became the fifth human being to walk on the moon. With co-pilot Edgar Mitchell, Shepard spent thirty-three hours conducting experiments on the lunar surface. Moreover, with his knack for self-promotion, he made his lunar exploration memorable by driving a two-wheeled vehicle dubbed “Shepard's Rickshaw” while gathering moonrocks, and by hitting two golf balls in the one-sixth gravity with a makeshift six-iron which he had rigged from his lunar module, Anteres.

Soon after the Apollo 14 mission, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Shepard as a delegate to the twenty-sixth United Nations General Assembly. In 1974, having been promoted to the rank of rear admiral, Shepard retired from the navy and at the same time from NASA. Already a millionaire from investments in real estate and banking, he became chairman of Marathon Construction in Houston and founded his own business, Seven Fourteen Enterprises. In 1984 Shepard and the other surviving Mercury astronauts established the Mercury Seven Foundation to raise money for scholarships for science and engineering students. Among his many national honors, Shepard was awarded the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, the Smithsonian Institution's Langley Medal, two honorary doctorate degrees, and the Congressional Medal of Honor for Space. He died in Monterey, California.

Shepard's influence on the history of America's space program is profound. As the natural leader of the seven original astronauts, he earned a reputation as a tough behind-the-scenes mediator on behalf of manned spaceflight. He could be by turns ruthlessly competitive and a charming jokester. In the tense early days of the Mercury program, Shepard brought in comedian Bill Dana as the quixotic “Spanish Astronaut,” José Jimenez, to relax his six high-strung colleagues. He was a brilliant engineer who tested radical designs for future spacecraft and helped plan long-range missions to the moon and beyond. He is properly lionized for his courage and patriotism in sitting atop experimental rockets filled with explosive fuel in order to further America's ideological interests in the Cold War against the Communist bloc. Prior to his thrilling fifteen-minute flight witnessed by an expectant nation in 1961, the United States had absorbed a crushing series of setbacks, including the Russian launch of Sputnik, the world's first manmade satellite, in 1957; fiery booster rocket explosions; Gagarin's epic flight; and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba just five days after Vostok I. The timing was perfect, then, for Shepard's exhilarating success aboard Freedom 7, which galvanized the scientific community, renewed America's national confidence and international prestige, and proved to be a major step in the American drive to land a man on the moon and win the Cold War.

Perhaps Shepard himsef best summarized his character and philosophy in a 1998 interview when he mused, “Standing on the surface of the moon, looking up in the black sky, at a planet which is four times the size of the moon, as we see it, and thinking about the millions of people that are down there … desperately trying to get along… .What a shame it is that they can't be put on the moon and let them look back at the planet Earth for a while, so they could say, ‘Hey, look, we've got to take care of this place.'” In his groundbreaking book, The Right Stuff (1979), Tom Wolfe was speaking about Shepard as much as anyone when he characterized a brash young pilot in the U.S. space program as a patriot who possessed an ineffable quality beyond bravery: he flew “in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then had the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull back in the last yawning moment--and then go back up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite--and ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God” (p. 24).


Less than one month after Shepard's flight aboard Freedom 7 in 1961, Martin Caidin produced a book-length re-creation of the entire mission, Man into Space. That same year Caidin also published The Astronauts: The Story of Project Mercury, and Jewel and Charles Smaus wrote America's First Spacemen, both featuring Shepard. In We Seven: By the Astronauts Themselves (1962), Shepard contributed four essays, including “The First American,” a minute-by-minute account of his suborbital flight. In 1994, with Deke Slayton as coauthor, Shepard published Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon, a thorough review of the U.S. space program from its beginnings through Slayton's flight in one of the last Apollo missions in 1975. Shepard disliked The Right Stuff because he believed Wolfe concentrated too much on the astronauts' personal lives, and he therefore was pleased to write the foreword to Joseph Atkinson and Jay Shafritz's The Real Stuff: A History of NASA's Astronaut Recruitment Program (1985). Shepard also wrote the “Forward” to Stanley Goldstein's scholarly Reaching for the Stars (1987) on the importance of early astronaut training. Among NASA's many publications featuring Shepard are Astronaut Fact Book (1992) and Loyd Swenson, James Grimwood, and Charles Alexander, This New Ocean (1998), concerning the part of the NASA history series devoted to Project Mercury. See also Joseph Bell, Seven into Space (1960); Michael Cassutt, Who's Who in Space: The First 25 Years (1987); and Robin Kerrod, The Illustrated History of NASA (1988). Video recordings featuring Shepard are Racing for the Moon: America's Glory Days in Space (1989), and Apollo 14: Mission to Fra Mauro (1995). An obituary is in the New York Times, 23 Aug. 1998.

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