Shepard, Alan Bartlett, Jr.
SHEPARD, Alan Bartlett, Jr.
(b. 18 November 1923 in East Derry, New Hampshire; d. 21 July 1998 in Monterey, California), U.S. Navy test pilot, astronaut, and businessman who in 1961 became the first American to be launched into outer space and in 1971 became the fifth man to walk on the Moon and the first to play golf there.
Shepard's father, Alan Bartlett Shepard, Sr., was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who later worked in insurance. His mother, Renza (Emerson) Shepard, was a homemaker. The elder child in the family, Shepard attended rural East Derry's one-room school. For high school he attended Pinkerton Academy in nearby Derry, leaving in 1940 to attend Admiral Farragut Academy in Toms River, New Jersey, for a year. He then entered an accelerated three-year program at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, graduating with a B.S. in 1944. Although Shepard served on a destroyer in the closing months of World War II, he found time to marry Louise Brewer on 3 March 1945; they had two daughters.
Once World War II ended, Shepard attended naval flight training school at Corpus Christi, Texas, and Pensacola, Florida. He simultaneously attended a civilian flight school, earning a civilian flying license before finishing his naval flying studies in March 1947. For three years he was assigned to Fighter Squadron Forty-two, stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and served on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1950 he began attending the test pilot school in Patuxent River, Maryland.
As a test pilot he researched U.S. weather conditions at different altitudes and then tested methods for in-flight refueling of jet aircraft, the suitability of the F2H3 Banshee fighter for landing on and taking off from aircraft carriers, and the use of angled decks on aircraft carriers. He was stationed for a short period at Moffett Field in California, becoming the operations officer for Fighter Squadron 193, which sailed on the aircraft carrier Oriskany in the Pacific. Thereafter he tested several cutting-edge aircraft before becoming an instructor at the test pilot school in Patuxent River, finishing in 1956. Shepard then studied at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, graduating in 1958. During Shepard's long military career he was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and several other awards.
Shepard's career took a twist and a turn in 1959, when 110 test pilots from all of the services were asked to try out to become astronauts. Because Shepard's orders had been misplaced, he entered the testing program a bit belatedly, but he still was named as one of the first U.S. astronauts, the Mercury Seven. Shepard was assigned to develop the tools needed to track spacecraft, as well as to train the people who would retrieve astronauts and recover spacecraft. There was constant speculation about whether John Glenn, Gus Grissom, or Shepard would be the first human pilot in a Mercury capsule.
In late April 1961 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that Shepard would be the first U.S. astronaut to fly into outer space. On 12 April 1961 the Russian Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space, although he had no control over his capsule. Unlike Gagarin, who was only a passenger, Shepard would be able to maneuver his craft during the flight. Bad weather caused the launch of Shepard's Freedom 7 to be delayed from 2 May until 5 May 1961.
From 5:20 a.m. to 9:34 a.m. , Shepard sat uncomfortably in his capsule atop its launch rockets, waiting while technicians uncovered and corrected one problem after another; then Freedom 7 was launched. Once in outer space, Shepard took over manual control of the craft and practiced some maneuvers. He reported that weightlessness was actually pleasant and did not make him sick. The descent of Freedom 7 was too fast, but Shepard was able to maneuver it enough to put it on the desired landing trajectory. For his historic fifteen-minute flight, Shepard was honored by President John F. Kennedy and by congratulations from all over the world.
He soon returned to work and was scheduled for another Mercury flight, but that launch was scrubbed in favor of the new Gemini program, which featured two-seater capsules. Shepard was assigned to one of the Gemini flights, but he soon began to suffer from bouts of nausea and dizziness. He would feel fine for several days and then become sick again, with ringing in one of his ears. In 1963 Shepard was diagnosed with Ménière's syndrome, or too much fluid pressure in the inner ear. Because of this disease, he was no longer allowed to fly aircraft and his seat on the Gemini mission was given to another astronaut. From 1965 to 1974 Shepard served as the director of NASA's astronaut office.
In 1968 Shepard had a tube surgically inserted in his ear to drain the excess fluid that was causing the damaging pressure. The operation was a success, and on 7 May 1969 he regained his flight status and returned to the astronaut-training program. He was assigned as the commander of Apollo 14, with the crew of Edgar Mitchell, who would join Shepard in walking on the Moon, and Stuart Roosa, who, as the pilot of the command module, would orbit the Moon until the spacewalkers' return. They were launched from Cape Kennedy on 31 January 1971. In spite of the scientific work completed by the astronauts, most people remembered the third lunar landing for Shepard's golfing demonstration in the dust of the lunar surface, which was broadcast live on television all over the world.
After his return to Earth, in 1971 Shepard was made a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and was promoted to rear admiral. He retired from the navy and from NASA on 31 July 1974. During the 1960s Shepard had made good investments in real estate and banking, and he was likely already a millionaire before his Apollo flight. After his retirement he pursued a successful business career in Houston, Texas, as the chair of a construction company and the president of a beer distributor. He also chaired the Mercury Seven Foundation for many years. In the 1990s Shepard moved to California. He died of leukemia in Monterey at age seventy-four; his remains were cremated and the ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
Shepard will long be remembered as the first U.S. astronaut in space and as the first true pilot of a space vehicle. He brought a sense of humor and joy to his work that caught the imaginations of 1960s audiences and gave space travel a human perspective. By encouraging others to view his adventures as their own, he helped the U.S. public to believe space was a place where humans belonged.
Shepard and Deke Slayton, with Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon (1994), describes the 1960s space program. A profile of Shepard is included in M. Scott Carpenter, et al., We Seven, by the Astronauts Themselves (1962). Current Biography Yearbook (1961) presents details about Shepard's life and indicates some of the breathless excitement inspired by his Mercury flight. For significant insights into Shepard's life, see Tara Gray, "Alan B. Shepard, Jr.," Fortieth Anniversary of the Mercury Seven, on the NASA website. This website also offers access to Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (1989), which includes a detailed account of Shepard's 1961 flight. Obituaries are in Time (3 Aug. 1998) and People Weekly (10 Aug. 1998).
Kirk H. Beetz
Shepard, Alan Bartlett, Jr