Alan Shepard, First American in Space, Dies at 74

By Harper, Jennifer | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Alan Shepard, First American in Space, Dies at 74


Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Astronaut Alan Shepard, America's first man in space and the fifth man to walk on the moon, died in his sleep late Tuesday night in Monterey, Calif. He was 74 and had suffered from leukemia.

He spent only 217 hours away from Earth, but the experience was to last him a lifetime. Though he was a high-profile hero and an icon of the times, Mr. Shepard was a tenacious professional, his daring tempered with humor and a sense of duty.

"You have to be there not for the fame and glory and recognition," he once said. "You've got to be there because you believe you are good in your field, and you can contribute."

President Clinton formally praised Mr. Shepard yesterday but also put him in historical context. His story meant much to many.

"Those of us who are old enough to remember the early spaceflights will always remember what an impression he made on us and on the world," Mr. Clinton said. "He led our country and all humanity beyond the bounds of our planet."

Mr. Shepard took that lead in the spring of 1961.

Alone in a snub-nose space capsule the size of a closet, he rocketed 116 miles up, lingered 15 weightless minutes, then fell to the Atlantic Ocean as millions watched on live television.

It was a giddy, public event, unlike the Soviet version, which was shrouded in secrecy. Though a Russian had made the world's first space trip three weeks earlier, the cosmonaut had been more passenger than pilot. Scientists noted with glee that Mr. Shepard actually maneuvered the spacecraft himself. His years as a hands-on Navy test pilot had paid off.

"He crawled on top of that rocket that had never before flown into space with a person aboard and he did it. That was an unbelievable act of courage," said NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin yesterday.

Mr. Shepard always cited training rather than pluck as the key element for success. A sense of perspective helped as well.

After streaking to Earth at 5,000 mph, Mr. Shepard simply told Mission Control that all was "A-OK," adding some new vernacular to America's vocabulary. He later modestly described the flight as a "baby step" for the new space program.

Mr. Shepard also left his personal signature on another spaceflight.

Though NASA barred him from space travel for a decade because of an inner ear disturbance, Mr. Shepard gamely ran the entire astronaut program from a desk. Younger men went to the moon as the middle-aged administrator took care of business. In 1971, he got another chance.

At 47, the country's oldest astronaut took command of Apollo 14, which set a record by spending 33 1/2 hours on the moon. Mr. Shepard also delighted Americans by taking an improvised golf club onto the lunar surface and teeing up not one, but two balls. He took three shots in a minute, then resumed gathering moon rock samples with a grin.

Mr. Shepard's place as head honcho of "The Magnificent Seven" - America's first seven astronauts - was now part of history. Tom Wolfe immortalized it in his novel "The Right Stuff."

But "Smilin' Al," who never cared for the book, responded with "Moon Shot," his own behind-the-scenes look at the space program in which he shared one of his most personal moments. …

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