13 Facts about Astronaut Alan Shepard, the First American in Space

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space when he flew the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7 on a suborbital flight, soaring 116 miles above Earth and then splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean after 15.5 minutes. Ten years later, Shepard became the fifth man to walk on the moon—and the oldest, at 47— when he took part in the Apollo 14 lunar landing. Shepard is remembered as a complex man who lived an outsized life. With that in mind, here are 13 interesting facts about Alan Shepard.

Born on November 18, 1923, in East Derry, New Hampshire, Shepard attended a one-room schoolhouse during his early years. He then enrolled at Pinkerton Academy, an independent day and boarding school, where he received good grades—particularly in math. Shepard graduated in 1940 and went on to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Shepard graduated from the naval academy in 1944 and then enrolled in flight school at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas. Shepard was a mediocre student and was nearly dropped from the program; he then decided to take private flying lessons. He earned his civilian pilot’s license, his skills improved, and he earned above average ratings. His final test included six perfect landings on the aircraft carrier USS Saipan.

Shepard saw active duty in the Pacific. He served on the destroyer USS Cogswell during the Battle of Okinawa and in Tokyo Bay when Japanese forces surrendered to end the war. Japanese officials signed the surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, though the Cogswell was the first of the allied ships to enter the bay.

The Mercury 7 astronauts post for a group portrait. Front row (L-R) Walter M. "Wally" Schirra, Jr., Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; Back row (L-R) Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper.
The Mercury 7 astronauts post for a group portrait. Front row (L-R) Walter M. “Wally” Schirra, Jr., Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter; Back row (L-R) Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper. / NASA/Life Magazine // Public Domain

Following the war, Shepard attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Maryland and worked as a test pilot and instructor. When the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration called for volunteers to participate in its space exploration program, Shepard was one of about 100 test pilots who went through a battery of mental, physical, and technical exams. He was chosen in 1959 as one of the original seven astronauts in NASA’s Mercury program, along with John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, and Gus Grissom.

Shepard was picked over Grissom and Glenn to crew Mercury’s Freedom 7 capsule, scheduled to launch at approximately 7 a.m. on May 5, 1961, for a flight lasting 15 minutes. But a series of delays meant Shepard was strapped into his seat for more than three hours, and had been suited up for about four hours.

Shepard radioed down to ask whether he could step out and relieve himself, and was told no. He warned them that he would pee in his suit, prompting a frenzied discussion at mission control about whether doing so would short-circuit the wires and thermometers inside it. Finally, power was temporarily shut off and Shepard was allowed to proceed. His long underwear absorbed the fluid, which quickly evaporated. Later, after another delay, a frustrated and antsy Shepard barked, “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

The Soviet space program had launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to space 23 days before Shepard, but Shepard’s flight bolstered the U.S. efforts in the space race. It also gave the U.S. bragging rights, since Shepard actually piloted his spacecraft while Gagarin’s flight had been managed completely by ground control.

Shepard began experiencing dizzy spells after being named a command pilot for the Gemini program and was grounded from flight in 1964. He was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, which affects the inner ear and causes vertigo. In 1968, he had a shunt implanted in his ear in a procedure that, at the time, had a low probability of success. But the surgery corrected the problem, and he was cleared in 1969 to full space flight status.

Shepard was assigned to fly Apollo 13 along with Stuart Roosa and Ed Mitchell. That crew was then reassigned to the Apollo 14 mission to allow for extra training time. Apollo 13 never landed on the moon, as viewers of the 1995 Tom Hanks movie know: An oxygen tank explosion forced the crew to make an emergency return to Earth.

When Shepard did walk on the moon in January 1971, he became the oldest man to do so. He and Mitchell spent more than 33 hours on the lunar surface, including more than nine hours outside the craft; Roosa orbited in the command module Kitty Hawk.

Alan Shepard, commander of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission, stands on the moon. Shadows of the lunar module and astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell appear in the foreground.
Alan Shepard, commander of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission, stands on the moon. Shadows of the lunar module and astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell appear in the foreground. / NASA // Public Domain

Toward the end of the Apollo 14 mission, Shepard pulled out a specially made six-iron and two golf balls, and on his third try, drove the ball 200 yards across the lunar surface.

Shepard got the idea after comedian Bob Hope visited NASA headquarters in Houston. Hope always carried a golf club, including on that day. As the entertainer was strapped into a training device that simulated the moon’s one-sixth gravity, Shepard realized hitting a golf ball would be an effective way to demonstrate the moon’s gravitational pull.

Shepard’s modified club included a six-iron head attached to a collapsible aluminum and Teflon tool that could scoop lunar rock samples; Shepard brought the club head and golf balls aboard in a tube sock and saved the stunt for the end of the mission, after everything else had gone well. The “moon club” is on display at the USGA Golf Museum and Library in New Jersey, acquired after a personal request from board member Bing Crosby. The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum has a replica that Shepard donated in 1975.

Shepard led NASA’s astronaut office from 1963 to 1969 and again from 1971 to 1974. During his long career at the agency, Shepard could be aloof and demanding. He guarded his privacy throughout his life, keeping a distance from colleagues and the press alike. At other times he was the life of the party, gregarious and charming. Author Tom Wolfe captured both personas in his history of the post-war space race, The Right Stuff.

Wolfe’s book and the subsequent movie were each commercial successes, but Shepard found them lacking. He told Publishers Weekly that Wolfe never spoke to the original seven astronauts and based his book off hearsay and second-hand accounts. He thought the storyline of the movie was a good one, but that the characterizations “left a little to be desired.” Later, on a tour promoting his own book, Moon Shot, Shepard took a shot at Wolfe’s work when he said, “We wanted to call ours The Real Stuff since his was just fiction.”

Shepard brought the then-small town of Derry, New Hampshire, a measure of fame in the 1950s and 1960s, and the town was proud of its hometown hero. His high school named its teams the Astros after Shepard’s 1961 flight; the mascot became Astro Man. Several buildings are named after Shepard as well.

Alan Shepard and his wife Louise were married for more than 50 years and had three daughters: Laura, Alice, and Juliana. In her career as a flight attendant, Juliana was working on Continental Airlines’s Flight 426, which crashed immediately after takeoff from Denver’s Stapleton International Airport on August 7, 1975. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the plane had likely encountered severe wind shear from nearby thunderstorms [PDF]. All 135 people aboard the flight survived. Continental chairman and CEO Robert F. Six commended Juliana for her brave actions during the accident.


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