Alan Bartlett “Al” Shepard, Jr. (November 18, 1923 – July 21, 1998), (RADM, USN), was an American naval officer and aviator, test pilot, flag officer, one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts, and businessman, who in 1961 became the second person and the first American to travel into space. This Mercury flight was designed to enter space, but not to achieve orbit.
Ten years later, at age 47 and the oldest astronaut in the program, Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 mission, piloting the lander to the most accurate landing of the Apollo missions.
He became the fifth and oldest person to walk on the Moon, and the only astronaut of the Mercury Seven to walk on the Moon. During the mission, he hit two golf balls on the lunar surface.
These were his only two space flights, as his flight status was interrupted for five years (1964–69) during the Mercury and Gemini programs by Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear disease that was surgically corrected before his Moon flight. Shepard served as Chief of the Astronaut Office from November 1963 to July 1969 (the approximate period of his grounding), and from June 1971 to August 1, 1974 (from his last flight to his retirement).
He was promoted from Captain to Rear Admiral on August 25, 1971.
He retired from the United States Navy and NASA in 1974.
Shepard was born on November 18, 1923, in Derry, New Hampshire, to parents Lieutenant Colonel Alan B. Shepard, Sr. (1891–1973) and Renza Shepard (née Emerson; 1900–1993).
He attended primary and secondary schools in East Derry and Derry, including Pinkerton Academy. As a young boy, after helping to clean an aircraft hangar, he was given his first flying lesson by Arnold Sidney Butler, a local owner and operator of the Daniel Webster airport. He graduated from the Admiral Farragut Academy with the class of 1941.
He was active in the Boy Scouts of America. He earned the rank of First Class.
Shepard was one of many famous descendants of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren.
Shepard began his Naval service after graduation from the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1944, and served on the destroyer USS Cogswell while it was deployed in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. In this capacity, he saw combat action in the Caroline Islands, Leyte Gulf, Luzon, Okinawa, and in the Third Fleet raids on Japan.
He subsequently entered flight training at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, and NAS Pensacola, Florida. During naval flight training Shepard was so eager to fly that he studied and received a pilot’s license at a civilian flying school, and then received his Naval Aviator wings in 1947. He was assigned to Fighter Squadron 42 (VF-42) based at NAS Norfolk, Virginia, and NAS Jacksonville, Florida, and served several tours aboard aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea with the squadron.
In 1950, he attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. After graduation, he participated in flight test work, which included high-altitude tests to obtain data on light at different altitudes and on a variety of air masses over the American continent; test and development experiments of the Navy’s in-flight refueling system; carrier suitability trials of the F2H-3 Banshee; and Navy trials of the first angled carrier deck.
He was subsequently assigned to Fighter Squadron 193 (VF-193) based at NAS Moffett Field, California, a night fighter unit flying Banshee jets. As operations officer of this squadron, he made two tours to the western Pacific on board the carrier USS Oriskany.
Shepard returned to Patuxent for a second tour of duty and engaged in flight testing the F3H Demon, F8U Crusader, F4D Skyray and F11F Tiger.
He was also project test pilot on the F5D Skylancer, and his last five months at Patuxent were spent as an instructor in the Test Pilot School. He later attended the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, and, upon graduating with a Master of Arts degree in 1957, was assigned to the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, as Aircraft Readiness Officer.
He logged more than 8,000 hours of flying time, 3,700 hours in jet aircraft.
In 1959, Shepard was one of 110 military test pilots selected by their commanding officers as candidates for the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Project Mercury, the first U.S. manned space flight program. Following a grueling series of physical and psychological tests, NASA selected Shepard to be one of the original group of seven Mercury astronauts.
In January 1961, Shepard was chosen for the first American manned mission into space. Although the flight was originally scheduled for October 1960, delays by unplanned preparatory work meant that this was postponed several times, initially to March 6, 1961, and finally to May 5. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first person in space and to orbit the Earth.
On May 5, 1961, Shepard piloted the Freedom 7 mission and became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space. He was launched by a Redstone rocket, and unlike Gagarin’s 108-minute orbital flight, Shepard stayed on a ballistic trajectory—a 15-minute sub-orbital flight, which carried him to an altitude of 116 statute miles (187 km) and to a splashdown point 302 statute miles (486 km) down the Atlantic Missile Range.
Unlike Gagarin, whose flight was strictly automatic, Shepard had some control of Freedom 7, spacecraft attitude in particular. The launch was seen live on television by millions.
Shortly before the launch, Shepard said to himself: “Don’t mess up, Shepard …”
According to Gene Kranz in his book Failure Is Not an Option, “When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, he had replied, ‘The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.'”
After a dramatic Atlantic Ocean recovery, Commander Shepard observed, “… didn’t really feel the flight was a success until the recovery had been successfully completed. It’s not the fall that hurts; it’s the sudden stop.” After his successful return, Shepard was celebrated as a national hero, honored with parades in Washington, New York and Los Angeles, and received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal from President John F. Kennedy.
Later, he was scheduled to pilot the Mercury-Atlas 10 Freedom 7-II three-day extended-duration mission in October 1963. The MA-10 mission was cancelled on June 13, 1963. After MR-3, Shepard served as capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for the flights of Grissom and Glenn. He was the backup pilot for L. Gordon Cooper for the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission.
After the Mercury-Atlas 10 mission was cancelled, Shepard was designated as the Command Pilot of the first manned Project Gemini mission. Thomas P. Stafford was chosen as his Pilot. In early 1964, Shepard was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, a condition in which fluid pressure builds up in the inner ear.
This syndrome causes the semicircular canals and motion detectors to become extremely sensitive, resulting in disorientation, dizziness, and nausea. The condition caused him to be removed from flight status for most of the 1960s (Gus Grissom and John Young were assigned to Gemini 3 instead).
Also in 1963, he was designated Chief of the Astronaut Office, with responsibility for monitoring the coordination, scheduling, and control of all activities involving NASA astronauts.
This included monitoring the development and implementation of effective training programs to assure the flight readiness of personnel for crew assignments on manned space flights; furnishing pilot evaluations applicable to the design, construction, and operations of spacecraft systems and related equipment; and providing qualitative scientific and engineering observations to facilitate overall mission planning, formulation of feasible operational procedures, and selection and conduct of specific experiments for each flight.
During this period, his secretary had several head shot photographs taken of Shepard, posed with various expressions on his face. She would post these on the door to his private office, with a sign which said “Mood of the Day.” Visitors could then look at the photo to decide whether it was a good time to talk to him.
Shepard was restored to full flight status in May 1969, following corrective surgery (using a newly developed method) for Ménière’s disease, making him the only remaining active astronaut from the Mercury Seven (although Deke Slayton would be restored to flight status two years later).
There was also a general sentiment at NASA that at least one of the original Mercury astronauts should get to land on the Moon.
He was originally assigned to command Apollo 13, but as it was felt he needed more time to train, he and his crewmates (Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell and Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa) swapped missions with the then crew of Apollo 14 (James Lovell, Ken Mattingly, and Fred Haise).
Shepard encountered some controversy because of his relatively advanced age and lack of spaceflight experience. NASA had made it policy that all Apollo missions have at least one veteran crew member on them (the lone exception would be Skylab 4), but Shepard had had a mere 15 minutes of flying time almost ten years earlier and had also missed the entire Gemini program.
As he recalled in a 1991 interview, “There were already critics wondering if I wasn’t too old to fly and on top of everything else, I was going up there with two guys who’d never been in space before while I hadn’t flown anything in a decade. They joked that we were an all-rookie crew.”
Shepard made his second space flight as Commander of Apollo 14 from January 31 to February 9, 1971, America’s third successful lunar landing mission. Shepard piloted the Lunar Module Antares to the most accurate landing of the entire Apollo program. This was the first mission to successfully broadcast color television pictures from the surface of the Moon, using a vidicon-tube camera.
(The color camera on Apollo 12 provided a few brief moments of color telecasting before it was inadvertently pointed at the Sun, ending its usefulness.) While on the Moon, Shepard used a Wilson six-iron head attached to a lunar sample scoop handle to drive golf balls.
Despite thick gloves and a stiff spacesuit, which forced him to swing the club with one hand, Shepard struck two golf balls; driving the second, as he jokingly put it, “miles and miles and miles”.
Following Apollo 14, Shepard returned to his position as Chief of the Astronaut Office in June 1971. He was appointed by President Richard Nixon in July 1971 as a delegate to the 26th United Nations General Assembly, serving from September to December 1971. He was promoted to Rear Admiral by Nixon that same year before retiring both from the Navy and NASA on August 1, 1974.
After Shepard left NASA, he served on the boards of many corporations. He also served as president of his umbrella company for several business enterprises, Seven Fourteen Enterprises, Inc. (named for his two flights, Freedom 7 and Apollo 14).
In 1984, he and the other surviving Mercury astronauts, along with Betty Grissom, the widow of astronaut Gus Grissom, founded the Mercury Seven Foundation to raise money for scholarships for science and engineering students in college.
In 1995, the organization was renamed the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Shepard was elected president and chairman of the foundation, posts he held until October 1997, when he turned over both positions to former astronaut Jim Lovell.
In 1994, he published a book with two journalists, Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, called Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. Fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton is also named as an author. The book generated some controversy for use of a staged photo purportedly showing Shepard hitting a golf ball on the Moon. The book was also turned into a TV miniseries in 1994.
Shepard died of leukemia in Pebble Beach, California, on July 21, 1998 at the age of 74, two years after being diagnosed with that disease.
He was the second astronaut to die who had walked on the Moon; Jim Irwin being the first in 1991. His wife, Louise Shepard, died five weeks later at the age of 76. Married 53 years, both were cremated, and their ashes scattered together by a Navy helicopter over Stillwater Cove, in front of their Pebble Beach home.
Their children include daughters Laura (born July 2, 1947) and Juliana (born March 16, 1951), and adopted daughter Alice (born in 1951). Alice was Louise’s niece, but raised as their own daughter, after her mother (Louise’ s sister) died. The Shepards also had six grandchildren.
Shepard was a member of many organizations. He was a fellow of the American Astronautical Society and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots; member of the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Mayflower Society, the Order of the Cincinnati, and the American Fighter Aces; honorary member, Board of Directors for the Houston School for Deaf Children, Director, National Space Institute, and Director, Los Angeles Ear Research Institute.