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the first American in space
Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. was born in East Derry, New Hampshire, on November 18, 1923, the son of a retired Army officer. He grew up on the family farm and attended East Derry's one-room schoolhouse. As a boy he did odd jobs at the local airfield to learn about airplanes. After graduating from high school, where he excelled, he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he graduated the day after D-Day. He spent the last year of World War II on the destroyer Cogswell in the Pacific. Soon after the war in the Pacific ended, Shepard married Louise Brewer, whom he had met while attending the Naval Academy. The couple ultimately had three daughters -- Julie, Laura, and Alice.
Over the next 15 years, Shepard served in the Navy in various capacities. He received a civilian pilot's license while in naval flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas, and Pensacola, Florida, earned his naval wings in 1947, and subsequently spent several tours with the 42nd Fighter Squadron in the Mediterranean. In 1950 he attended the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School in Patuxent, Maryland, after which he participated in a number of developmental tests for various crafts, as well as trials of the first angled carrier deck. He then became an instructor in the Test Pilot School. Following his 1957 graduation from the Naval War College in Rhode Island, he was assigned as an aircraft readiness officer on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.
On April 13, 1959, Shepard was introduced as one of the "Mercury 7," America's first astronauts. On April 15, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go into space, giving the Soviet Union an advantage in the "space race." The United States caught up quickly, however, launching Shepard into space on May 5, 1961. The Freedom 7 capsule reached an altitude of 116 miles before returning to Earth; the entire flight lasted 15 minutes. Despite not being the first manned space flight, Shepard's flight was still technologically important. While Gagarin had had no control over his spacecraft during his flight, Shepard could manuever his capsule as needed. In addition, Shephard's launch, travel and splashdown were watched on live television by millions of people. By contrast, many of the details of Gagarin's mission were kept confidential for more than a decade.
Following his historic mission, Shepard worked on the ground for subsequent flights in the Mercury program and was slated to pilot the Mercury 10 mission. However, after successfully putting an astronaut in orbit for a full day with Mercury 9, NASA decided to close the first manned space program and move on with Project Gemini.
Shepard was supposed to be part of the first manned Gemini mission, but he woke one morning dizzy and nauseated, and found himself falling constantly. Subsequently diagnosed with Meniere's Syndrome (an inner ear disorder), he was grounded in 1963, and his Gemini spot was filled by Gus Grissom. Prevented from making solo jet flights or going into space, Shepard became Chief of the Astronaut Office for NASA, in which capacity he oversaw the activities and schedules of the astronauts and their training and assisted with mission planning. A 1969 operation corrected his inner ear problem, allowing him to regain full flight status. He, Stuart Roosa, and Ed Mitchell were initially scheduled to fly on Apollo 13, but they were pushed back a mission to give everyone extra training. Shepard was subsequently named commander for the Apollo 14 mission.
Shepard blasted back into space on January 31, 1971, and landed in the Fra Mauro highlands on February 7. At the age of 47, he was the oldest astronaut in the space program at the time, and the oldest man to ever walk on the Moon. He and Mitchell spent 33 and a half hours on the Moon, the longest stay time to that date, while Roosa piloted the command module up above. Shepard and Mitchell also spent more time outside of their craft than previous astronauts had, logging 9 hours and 17 minutes. Before leaving the lunar surface, Shepard, an avid golfer, unfolded a collapsible golf club and hit two balls. The first landed in a nearby crater, but according to Shepard, the second flew for "miles and miles." The three men returned to Earth on February 9.
When Shepard retired from NASA as a Rear Admiral in 1974 he had logged a total of 216 hours and 57 minutes in space. After leaving NASA, he served as chairman of Marathon Construction Corporation and started an umbrella company for his diverse business interests, Seven Fourteen Enterprises, named for the Freedom 7 and Apollo 14 missions. In 1984, he worked with the other surviving Mercury astronauts and the widow of Apollo 1 victim Gus Grissom to found the Mercury Seven Foundation. Later renamed the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, the organization raises money for college students studying science and engineering.
After a struggle with leukemia, Alan Shepard passed away on July 21, 1998, in Monterey, California.
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This page was last updated on 10/16/2017.