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Alan Shepard was 'a pretty cool customer'

On May 5, 1961, Shepard became the first American in space  

In this story:

July 22, 1998
Web posted at: 12:12 p.m. EDT (1212 GMT)

(CNN) -- Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., America's first man in space, the fifth to walk on the moon and considered by some to be the epitome of the original American astronauts, has died at age 74, NASA said Wednesday. He had suffered from leukemia.

Shepard died at Community Hospital near Monterey, California, said Howard Benedict, executive director of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation in Titusville, Florida, who had talked to Shepard's wife.

After his historic space flight in 1961, amid a period of Cold War hate and uncertainty, Shepard re-invigorated the American psyche with his portrayal of the unflappable, can-do techno-warrior.

When he was inducted into the Hall of Science and Exploration years later, Shepard himself conceded with pardonable pride that "everybody thought I was a pretty cool customer."

Glenn describes fellow astronaut Alan Shepard
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Shepard on being selected to go on his first mission

(162 K / 14 sec. audio)

'A real likable guy'

Shepard, a gruff, eighth-generation New Englander, was born in East Derry, New Hampshire, on November 18, 1923, and had the kind of storybook childhood that could have been illustrated by Norman Rockwell.

The son of Alan Bartlett Shepard Sr., a retired Army colonel and businessman, and Renza Emerson Shepard, he grew up on a farm and went to school in a one-room schoolhouse where he completed six grades in five years.

A dutiful son, Shepard did chores around the farm and got a paper route so he could buy a bicycle. On Saturday mornings, he rode the bicycle 10 miles to a local airport, where he cleaned hangars, helped push the planes in and out and fanned a passion for flying sparked by Charles Lindbergh's landmark flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

After graduation from high school and a year at Admiral Farragut Academy in New Jersey, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a member of the varsity crew and participated in other sports. He was remembered by a classmate as "undistinguished, but a real likable guy."

After graduating 462nd in a class of 913, Shepard served as an ensign aboard the destroyer Cogswell in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he began training as an aviator, and was so eager to accelerate the process that he took additional lessons at a civilian flying school in his spare time.

'Smilin' Al' and the icy commander

After several tours of duty in the Mediterranean, Shepard became one of the Navy's top test pilots and took part in high-altitude flying tests. He also flew a number of experimental planes that included the F4D Skyray, the F11F Tigercat, the F2H3 Banshee and the F5D Skylancer and did landings on the Navy's new angled-deck aircraft carriers.

When he was selected to be one of America's first seven Mercury astronauts he was regarded "as a top-knotch Navy aviator, tough, quick-witted, and a leader," wrote Tom Wolfe in "The Right Stuff," his classic account of the early space program.

In fact, Wolfe found there were two Alan Shepards. One was "the utterly, and, if necessary, icily correct career Navy officer."

The other, the one Wolfe dubbed "Smilin' Al of the Cape," emerged at Cape Canaveral where the often astronauts trained, far from their families. "Smilin' Al" was a fun-loving, fast-moving (he drove a Corvette) party animal, wrote Wolfe.

But he was deadly earnest about being an astronaut. In his Hall of Science and Exploration interview, Shepard said his proudest accomplishment was being chosen to make the first manned American flight into space.

"That was competition at its best," he said. "Not because of the fame or the recognition that went with it, but because of the fact that America's best test pilots went through this selection process down to seven guys, and of those seven, I was the first one to go. That will always be the most satisfying thing for me."

Shepard and Edgar Mitchell spent nine hours on the moon's surface during the Apollo 14 mission  

A series of space failures

His 15-minute, 302-mile flight on May 5, 1961, may now seem a mere footnote in the lengthening history of the American space program. But it was a major accomplishment and came at a time when doubts abounded.

On April 12, less than a month before Shepherd's scheduled liftoff, the Soviet Union launched a spacecraft called Vostok I that carried 27-year-old cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on one lap around Earth. The feat not only made Gagarin the first man in space and the first to orbit the planet, but also gave the Soviets bragging rights in the Cold War's heated space race.

To make matters worse, a test rocket that was to carry a dummy astronaut into space went off course on April 25 and had to be destroyed. Three days later, a smaller rocket with a Mercury capsule on it also went off-course. It, too, had to be blown up.

There was a growing feeling, Wolfe wrote, that U.S. rockets always blow up and "our boys always botch it."

Delays pushed Shepard's launch back from May 2 to May 5, and once he'd been strapped into the tight little Freedom 7 capsule perched on a Redstone rocket, further complications delayed the launch another four hours.

The delay caused an unexpected problem. Lying cramped on his back, Shepard's bodily functions caught up with him, and after the long delay he finally had to urinate.

'Light this candle'

But there were no facilities aboard Freedom 7, not even so much as a bedpan or an empty canister, and eventually he was instructed by mission control to proceed with the only course of action available: "do it in the suit."

Shepard did, and it wasn't long before the liquid, confined by the nylon space suit and prisoner to the dictates of gravity, began pooling beneath him along his back

A few minutes later, writes Wolfe, mission control heard Shepard say in that Chuck Yeager drawl affected by fighter pilots no matter where they were from, "Weh-ayl ... I'm a wetback now."

At two minutes and forty seconds to launch, technicians noticed that fuel pressure was running high, and Shepard was told there might be another delay. It was at that point, writes Wolfe, that Smilin' Al of the Cape stepped aside for the Icy Commander.

"Why don't you fix your little problem," Shepard snapped, "and light this candle."

Perhaps the fuel pressure wasn't so high after all, the technicians agreed, and the countdown resumed.

Shepard was sent booming off into the Florida morning sky at 9:34 a.m., and the flight was so short and his responsibilities several, so Shepard had little time to enjoy it.

No stars, 10 Gs

He was so tightly strapped in, for example, that he couldn't feel the weightlessness, and had to settle for the vicarious thrill of watching a stray washer left behind by some workman floating in front of him.

Also, having inadvertently left a gray filter on the periscope window, his view of the planet below was not full-spectrum color, but black and white. Nevertheless, he felt obliged to say something, and his comment "What a beautiful view!" was accepted on Earth as exactly how it must be.

Knowing that he would be asked what the stars looked like from 115 miles up, Shepard stared out the porthole windows and all he could see was sky of the deepest blue.

The flight was smoother than many of the tests he'd undergone on a NASA centrifuge, but re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere fully met his expectations. As Freedom 7 decelerated from 5,180 miles an hour to 500 miles an hour in about 30 seconds, Shepard was squeezed by a tremendous pressure about 10 times the force of Earth's gravity.

Shepard splashed down 40 miles from Bermuda and was hoisted aboard a Marine helicopter that took him to the aircraft carrier Lake Champlain. A day later, he was in Washington where President John F. Kennedy Jr. awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal, and a parade in Washington two days after that drew 250,000 people.

First golf shots on the moon

An ear problem grounded Shepard and he was put in charge of the astronauts' office for the next 10 years. But he refused to give up on getting back into space, and when surgery corrected his ear problem, he talked his way into command of the Apollo 14 moon mission that was launched on January 31, 1971.

The 47-year-old Shepard and Ed Mitchell spent 33 1/2 hours on the moon, nine hours and 23 minutes of it trudging about on the surface in deep, shifting lunar dust.

Neither slept well, if they slept at all, and their final major task was to hike up the flank of a crater while towing, pushing and even carrying a cumbersome cart bearing tools and compartments for geological samples.

It was heavy, joyless work and, along with a pressing deadline and the lack of sleep, Shepard and Mitchell grew cranky and irritable. They muttered mild expletives from time to time, something that had seldom happened before when the public was listening.

But when the work was finished, Shepard pulled out two golf balls and unfolded a collapsible golf club specially made for the occasion. Despite thick gloves and a stiff suit that forced him to swing the club with one hand only, he became the first ever to hit golf shots on the moon.

'I was the first to go'

Shepard retired in 1974 from NASA and the Navy as a rear admiral and became chairman of Marathon Construction Corp. in Houston. He joined the board of directors of several companies and started Seven Fourteen Enterprises (named for Freedom 7 and Apollo 14), which served as an umbrella company for several enterprises.

He also served for many years as the chairman of the Mercury 7 Foundation -- now the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

At one point, Shepard and wife, Louise -- they had three daughters -- had homes in Houston's exclusive River Oaks section, Breckenridge, Colorado, and Pebble Beach, California. In his declining years, Shepard spent most of his time in Pebble Beach.

Shepard said at the Hall of Science and Exploration that he never set out to be a hero.

"During the actual process of flying spacecraft, or flying the Spirit of St. Louis, one doesn't think of one's self as being a hero or historical figure. One does it because the challenge is there, and one feels reasonably qualified to accomplish it. And it's later on, I suppose, perhaps at the suggestion of other people, that you say, 'Well, yes, maybe.'"

He concluded, "I must admit, maybe I am a piece of history after all."

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