Shepard: One of America's 'true adventurers'
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Web posted at: 8:00 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT)
HOUSTON (CNN) -- Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., the first American in space, was remembered Saturday by his fellow NASA space pioneers as a patriot and leader, a fierce competitor and a close friend.
Shepard, 74, died July 22 after a long battle with leukemia. His death leaves only four of the original seven Mercury astronauts -- John Glenn, M. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper and Walter Schirra Jr. -- who pioneered U.S. space exploration in the 1960s.
"America has lost one of its true adventurers, someone whose entire life was dictated by the American questing spirit," said Glenn. "Scott and Gordo and Wally and I have lost more than a friend. We've lost another brother."
NASA held the memorial at the Johnson Space Center. Overlooking the speakers on the stage was a large portrait of Shepard his Navy dress uniform. He retired as a Navy admiral.
Schirra broke down in tears as he ended his speech, poignantly saying, "Bye-bye, Al."
The 'big hangar in the sky'
Cooper remembered competing with Shepard by racing identical Corvettes, one of several references to Shepherd's choice of car during the early years of the U.S. space program.
"I'm sorry Al that I never told you that I changed the ratio in my differential," Cooper said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "You really weren't any less of a driver, it's just that I cheated a little on you."
Cooper said Shepherd had gone to the "big hangar in the sky, having a lot of good flights."
"We'll miss you, Al, but we'll be there before long, so we can try some of that flying ourselves," Cooper said.
Shepard died at Community Hospital near Monterey, California. He made his historic space flight in 1961, spending 15 minutes in a sub-orbital flight and impressing Americans with his performance as an unflappable, can-do astronaut.
As Glenn recalled, the flight was made was during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had beat America into space, first with Sputnik and then by launching Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space.
'Al brought us back'
"We had been beaten in the early days of the space race by a country that bragged (by saying) America now sleeps under a Soviet moon," he said, adding it was a very low time for American self-esteem.
"But Al brought us back," Glenn said.
James Lovell Jr., a Gemini and Apollo astronaut, said Shepherd's accomplishments continued after he left the space program, noting he was the driving force behind the creation of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
Carpenter said he always referred to Shepard by his middle name, Bartlett, while Shepard always referred to him as Malcolm, his first name.
"My hat's off to you, Bartlett," he said. "Thank you for all you have done for the Navy, for the space program and for your country. It is an honor and a privilege to have known you."
Shepard, a gruff, eighth-generation New Englander, was born in East Derry, New Hampshire, on November 18, 1923.
After graduating from high school and spending 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."
A top Naval test pilot
He 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.
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.
When he was selected to be one of America's first seven Mercury astronauts he was regarded "as a top-notch 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 astronauts often trained, far from their families.
His 15-minute, 302-mile flight on May 5, 1961, was considered a major accomplishment in the U.S. space program.
On April 12, less than a month before Shepard's scheduled liftoff, the Soviet Union launched a spacecraft called Vostok I that carried Gagarin on one lap around Earth, giving the Soviets bragging rights in the space race.
Delays pushed Shepard's launch back from May 2 to May 5, and once he'd been strapped into the cramped Freedom 7 capsule perched on a Redstone rocket, more complications delayed the launch another four hours.
'Light this candle'
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 and light this candle." Shepard snapped.
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, and the flight was so short and his responsibilities were so numerous that Shepard had little time to enjoy it.
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.
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.
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; 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 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.
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 person ever to hit golf shots on the moon.
Shepard retired in 1974 from NASA and the Navy 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 his wife, Louise had homes in Houston's exclusive River Oaks neighborhood, Breckenridge, Colorado, and Pebble Beach, California. The couple has three daughters. In his later years, Shepard spent most of his time in Pebble Beach.
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