Alan Shepard, Astronaut, Dies
Pioneer: First American in space riveted the public with 15-minute flight in 1961.
July 23, 1998
By MARK FRITZ, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Alan Shepard, the first American to be rocketed into space during a Cold War contest to conquer the moon, a victory he would whimsically celebrate a decade later by hitting golf balls across the lunar landscape, died Tuesday. He was 74.
Shepard, who galvanized a breathless nation during 15 tense, thrilling minutes of suborbital flight aboard a tiny spaceship on May 5, 1961, died at Community Hospital outside Monterey. He had been suffering from several health problems, but a family spokesman declined to reveal the exact cause of death.
Shepard was one of the seven jet-fighter pilots selected by NASA to be the heroes of the Mercury manned space program, the first phase of the race to beat the Soviet Union into space, an ideological struggle as much as a scientific endeavor. Ten years later, as the commander of Apollo 14, he became the fifth human to walk on the moon. By then, space travel was becoming almost mundane, and manned lunar exploration would soon end.
Though the Apollo flight was a trip to another world, Shepard is remembered for his role in the rudimentary maiden voyage of the Mercury mission. When he was first strapped into a space capsule named "Freedom 7" and fired into the Florida sky aboard a thundering Redstone rocket, the magnitude of the moment gripped the imaginations of millions of awe-struck Americans. They lionized Shepard and the rest of the first generation of space travelers, laconic men in crew cuts who were chosen for a mission that captured the soaring possibilities of an idealistic age.
"Those of us who are old enough to remember the first space flights will always remember what an impression he made on us and on the world," President Clinton said Wednesday.
Shepard was a man of medium height with blue eyes, brown hair and a passion for speedy cars. He was, by most accounts, ambitious, competitive, with a spiky wit he could turn into a weapon. Yet, like all the original astronaut cadre, he was at the outset homogenized into a taciturn American hero by a space agency intent on stage-managing its image.
Many Setbacks for Maiden Mercury Flight
Shepard's brief voyage--he spent only five of his 15 minutes aloft in space--came 23 days after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had made the first space flight. The Communist mission was a stunning blow to Western prestige and a crushing disappointment to Shepard himself, who already had been picked to be the first American in space.
The start of Shepard's maiden Mercury flight was fraught with nerve-racking setbacks at the launch site. The first attempt on May 2 was postponed because of stormy weather, and the second attempt was delayed for four hours while NASA technicians fixed computer, electrical and fuel problems with the astronaut waiting atop the booster.
The space shot took place in an era in which the risk was enormously high, at a time when unmanned rockets routinely blew up during launch, or went awry in the sky. It was during a period of near paranoia about Soviet aims and capabilities.
"The accomplishment of this was taking on the burden of representing the United States," said Allan Needell, curator of manned space flight at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. "He represented the aspirations of the whole American society."
Shepard had awakened shortly after 1 a.m. on the day of the flight. Instruments were attached to his body to measure breathing and heart rate. He donned a 30-pound space suit and climbed into the capsule.
The rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral at 9:34 a.m. The first stage fell away and the capsule continued until it was 115 miles up in the air. Millions of Americans stayed home from work or school to watch the flight, and thousands lined the beaches of the cape as the missile shot into the sky.
Ten minutes after takeoff, Shepard was in space, making a mental note to remember what weightlessness felt like--he later called it "a pleasant sensation"--because he knew he would be asked about to describe it.
He peered through the periscope and looked at a panorama extending from the Carolinas to the Bahamas. "What a beautiful view!" he exclaimed.
The capsule began to reenter the atmosphere and fall back to Earth, and Shepard experienced a force estimated at 10 times the normal gravitational pull. The capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 302 miles from Cape Canaveral. "Everything is A-OK!" Shepard radioed from his seat atop the sea.
He grinned as a helicopter hoist carried him from the bobbing, 10-foot capsule to a waiting aircraft carrier. "What a ride!" the 37-year-old Naval commander said after the flight.
Soon After, Kennedy Commits to the Moon
At the time, the flight was a vindication of American know-how and a time for rejoicing, even though Gagarin had actually orbited the earth, traveled three times as fast and spent nearly 90 minutes in flight. Still, as was noted at the time, Shepard had controlled a portion of the flight, while Gagarin was mere payload in a fully automated flight.
Twenty days later, President Kennedy gave a speech committing the country to sending a man to the moon before the decade was out. Shepard sat out the subsequent missions because of an inner-ear disorder that upset his equilibrium for nearly a decade. He subsequently recovered and was cleared for duty, and on Jan. 31, 1971, he commanded the third of the six missions to the moon.
The crew, which also included Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa, spent nine days in space, and Shepard and Mitchell spent 33 hours on the lunar surface. Despite the rock samples and scientific studies undertaken, the most memorable images of that trip remain of Shepard, with golf balls and a makeshift six-iron he had smuggled aboard, lofting one lazy, low-gravity shot after another across the powdery lunar surface. He shanked his first shot into a crater, which he later called an "infamous hole-in-one."
Shepard and the other original astronauts became celebrities in an era when national heroes were rarely examined for human foibles, rivalries or petty jealousies, though they had their share. The complex dynamics of the astronaut selection process and the rivalries of the "fighter jock" test pilots selected for the program were vividly recreated in the book "The Right Stuff," by Tom Wolfe, and a subsequent movie.
Shepard in particular was portrayed as someone who could be alternatively cold and charming, with a boyish grin and a sometimes cutting wit. "Alan would act sarcastic and people would get a little upset with him, and then he would break into a broad smile," said Frederick Ordway, a board member with the National Space Society who wrote a book about the space program.
Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. was born Nov. 18, 1923, in East Derry, N.H., the son of an Army colonel who later went into the insurance business. He was a top student and good athlete who went on to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.
He served on a destroyer in the Pacific in the waning months of World War II and became a top test pilot in the 1950s, joining the select fraternity of jet jockeys, the ranks of which would be raided for the fledgling astronaut program.
Two Years of Grueling Training
In 1959, NASA announced that seven men had been chosen among a list of 110 invited applicants. The men were put through two years of grueling training, including desert survival, and were bombarded with lessons in disciplines ranging from astrophysics to aviation biology.
"My feelings about being in this program are really quite simple," he said in a 1959 interview with Life magazine. "I'm here because it's a chance to serve the country. I'm here, too, because it's a great personal challenge."
So personal, it turned out, that Shepard was often portrayed as the man most intent on becoming the first in space, though his popularity was eclipsed by the more publicly personable John Glenn, now a U.S. senator from Ohio, who in 1962 would become the first American to orbit the Earth.
Shepard was the third of the original seven Mercury astronauts to die. The first was Virgil "Gus" Grissom, who died in 1967, along with two other astronauts, when a fire broke out aboard Apollo I while it sat on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. Donald K. "Deke" Slayton died in 1993.
Slayton and Shepard collaborated on a joint memoir in which Shepard recalled his misery after learning that Gagarin had beaten him into space. He also revealed one aspect of the mission that the tenor of the times didn't allow him to reveal.
"Man, I've got to pee," he told mission control. Mission commanders wouldn't let him off the ship, though, and Shepard urinated in a nylon space suit that wasn't yet equipped for such bodily functions. "No science fiction writer ever had penned this scenario," Shepard recounted in his book.
In addition to Glenn, the original astronauts who survive are Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter and Walter Schirra. A few of the original Mercury astronauts had a reunion in Orlando, Fla., earlier this year at a center for terminally ill children, said Patty Carpenter, Scott Carpenter's wife.
She said the Shepard did not look well, although he said he was "festive and upbeat."
"Scott took it very hard," she said of Shepard's death. "The original seven were like brothers. Scott was tearful and shocked."
Depressed in Recent Days
Shepard, who lived in Pebble Beach, had been depressed in recent days, said family spokesman Howard Benedict, a former Associated Press reporter who covered the space program and who is now executive director of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation in Titusville, Fla.
"I talked to him on Monday and he was at home," he said. "I had seen him on television Sunday night [introducing a space-program documentary] and I told him he sure looked good. He said 'I wish I felt as good as I looked.' He was in one of his blue moods. Of course, the next day, he goes into the hospital and dies."
Shepard was diagnosed with leukemia in 1996, but Benedict said the disease was in remission. "He was under treatment for several ailments," he said. "The family just wants it said that he died after a lengthy illness."
In Washington, Glenn told reporters that he had expected his friend, despite his illness, to live long enough to attend the launch when the senator returns to space for an October trip aboard the space shuttle.
But when the two spoke a few weeks ago, Shepard confided that he "was running about half throttle," Glenn said. "Al is the one who started the whole thing and he is going to be sorely missed," said Glenn, who was Shepard's alternate on the first flight.
He recalled that when it was his turn to go into space, Shepard had mischievously planted a toy mouse in his capsule that floated weightlessly out from behind the first switch that Glenn tripped.
After his retirement from the program, Shepard served on the boards of several corporations. He was president of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which raises money for scholarships for young people interested in science research.
Though his glory days were behind him, Shepard lectured and gave numerous interviews, including one on CNN less than a month ago, when he recalled his adventures with the sort of unvarnished insight that wasn't often heard back in the '60s.
"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 trying to get along, desperately trying to get along . . .," he said. "What a shame it is that they can't be put on the moon and let them look back at planet Earth for a while, so they could say 'Hey, look, we got to take care of this place. . . ." He made millions in private business ventures, including a Houston construction company that built Kmarts across Texas, where he lived before moving to California five years ago. Benedict said Shepard had personally raised more than $500,000 for the foundation.
Benedict said a private service would be held. Shepard is survived by his wife, Louise, and three daughters.
Times staff writer Geraldine Baum in Washington and researchers Lisa Meyer, John Beckham and Lianne Hart contributed to this article.