The first American in space, Alan Shepard's (born 1923) 1961 flight was immortalized in the book and movie, The Right Stuff.
Alan Shepard was born on November 18, 1923, in East Derry, New Hampshire, a small village a few miles south of Manchester. He was the son of an army colonel. As a small child, Shepard attended school in a one-room schoolhouse, where he was a good student, particularly in mathematics. He graduated from the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire, and entered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1941.
During World War II, Shepard served as an ensign aboard the destroyer Cogswell in the Pacific. Following the war, he began flight training and qualified as a pilot in 1947. As a Naval pilot, Shepard served in Norfolk, Virginia, Jacksonville, Florida, and aboard several aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. In 1950, he became a test pilot, and over the next eight years he tested a variety of aircraft and worked as a flight instructor. He was also assigned to duty aboard a carrier in the Pacific and eventually earned an appointment to the staff of the Atlantic fleet's commander in chief.
One of the First Astronauts
In 1958, Shepard was one of 110 test pilots chosen by NASA as prospective astronauts. NASA planned to judge the applicants based on physical and mental criteria, looking, as NASA administrator T. Keith Glennan stated, for "men of vision … with a practical, hardheaded approach to the difficult job ahead." After a battery of physical and psychological tests, seven men were selected as the nation's first astronauts: John Glenn, M. Scott Carpenter, Virgil Grissom, Donald Slayton, Leroy Cooper, Walter Schirra, and Alan Shepard. Following the announcement Shepard said, "My feelings about being in this program are really quite simple….I'm here because it's a chance to serve the country. I'm here, too, because it's a great personal challenge: I know [space travel] can be done, that it's important for it to be done, and I want to do it."
Shepard began intensive training for space flight. Courses in biology, geography, astrophysics, astronomy, and meteorology supplemented his physical training, which included exposure to conditions much more severe than were anticipated during space travel. Shepard also spent long hours performing weightlessness tests, preparing for the weaker gravitational pull outside the earth's atmosphere.
First American in Space
Early in 1961, NASA chose Shepard over Glenn and Grissom, the two other finalists, to be the first American in space. The astronauts themselves had attempted to downplay the importance of the selection of the first astronaut. John Glenn said, "We have tried to do away with a lot of this talk about who is going to be first on this, because we feel very strongly that this is so much bigger than whose name happens to be on the first ticket." Preparations for America's first manned space flight therefore commenced in a spirit of cooperation. Glenn acted as Shepard's backup, ready if Shepard became unable to fly, and Slayton served as Shepard's radio contact at the Mercury Control Center. The other astronauts also had responsibilities during Shepard's flight.
On May 5, 1961, Freedom 7 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Shepard piloted the Mercury capsule 115 miles above the earth's surface and 302 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. After landing safely in the Atlantic, Shepard was picked up from the water by helicopter pilot; his first words were, "Man, what a ride!" Although the trip lasted for only about fifteen minutes, Shepard's journey was almost technically perfect, and it paved the way for many more flights by U.S. astronauts. Shepard returned to ticker-tape parades, and he received a medal from President John F. Kennedy.
After his historic flight Shepard looked forward to future missions. In 1963, however, he was diagnosed as having Meniere's syndrome, a disease of the inner ear that produces nausea, vertigo, and hearing impairment. NASA removed Shepard from active flight duty and reassigned him to NASA's Houston, Texas, facility, where he became chief of the Astronaut Office. Although he became quite wealthy as a result of real estate and banking investments during the next few years, he yearned for space flight. In 1968, he underwent a successful operation in which a small drain tube was implanted in his inner ear. Shepard applied for readmission to active duty, and in 1969 his patience and determination were rewarded when NASA chose him to command the Apollo 14 flight to the moon. "I think if a person wants something badly enough," Shepard once said, "he's just got to hang in there and keep at it."
Went to the Moon
Apollo 14 became an important mission for the U.S. space program. Apollo 13 had been a disappointment; technical difficulties had prevented it from landing on the moon as planned and placed the astronauts in danger, and the space program was losing public support. The Apollo 14 astronauts were scheduled to test new equipment on the moon's surface and to spend longer periods outside the space capsule. Shepard and Edwin Mitchell were assigned to land on the moon while Stuart Roosa orbited the moon in the command module, the Kitty Hawk.
On January 31, 1971, Apollo 14 blasted off from Cape Kennedy, nearly ten years after Shepard's first space flight. Five days later Shepard and Mitchell landed on the moon's surface, the third group of astronauts to do so. From their lunar module, the two astronauts stepped out into the Fra Mauro Highlands, as the world watched on television. Shepard said, "Wow, it's really wild up here…. It certainly is a stark place." The astronauts had brought a lunar cart with them, and during two trips outside the lunar module, each lasting more than four and a half hours, they conducted experiments and gathered rock specimens. On one excursion Shepard hit a golf ball across the moon's surface. In addition, the astronauts left behind a multi-million dollar mini-scientific station that would continue to send messages to scientists on earth. Thirty-three and a half hours after they landed, the two astronauts completed a successful docking with Kitty Hawk. The 240,000-mile journey back to earth ended with a splash-down near Samoa in the South Pacific on February 9. By all accounts, the voyage was a big success.
Immortalized in The Right Stuff
The story of the 1961 flight was immortalized in a book by Tom Wolfe and 1983 movie, both titled The Right Stuff. Both the movie and the book found a sizable audience, but Shepard wasn't that impressed, as he told Publisher's Weekly. "Wolfe never talked to any of us original seven guys. His book was based on hearsay, on what he got from second generation astronauts. The story line was good, but the characterizations left a little to be desired."
Shepard and Deke Slayton, another former astronaut, sought to set the story straight when they contracted to write their own account of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, tentatively titled Giant Steps: The Inside Story of the American Space Program. "The other books written about the space program have been may be more like stories by engineers than by reporters," Shepard told Publisher's Weekly. "Ours has a little more drama." Asked why he had waited until the mid-1990s to tell his story, he told Publisher's Weekly,"It's been in the back of my mind, but I've been busy with other things until now, until these guys came to me."
Shepard retired from NASA in 1974. Always a successful entrepreneur, he developed a wholesale beer distributorship and a real estate firm in the Houston area. Shrewd investments in horses, banks, oil, and real estate have made him a multimillionaire. He has been married for over 40 years and has two daughters, lives in Houston and chairs the board of the Mercury 7 Foundation, the original astronauts' educational organization. Although no longer active in the space program, Alan Shepard will be remembered both as the first American in space and as one of a handful of men to walk on the moon.
Further Reading on Alan Shepard
Caiden, Martin, The Astronauts: The Story of Project Mercury, Dutton, 1961.
Carpenter, M.C., and others, We Seven, By the Astronauts Themselves, Simon & Schuster, 1962.
MacMillan, Norman, Great Flights and Air Adventures, St. Martin's, 1965, pp. 202-203.
Silverberg, Robert, First American Into Space, Monarch Books, 1961.
AdAstra, July/August 1991.
Life, May 12, 1961, pp. 18-27.
Publisher's Weekly, March 15, 1993.
Time, February 1, 1971, p. 46; October 3, 1980, pp. 40, 58.
U. S. News and World Report, May 15, 1961, pp. 53-59; May 10, 1976, p. 49; February 15, 1971, pp. 29-31.