Alan Shepard became the first American in space when the Freedom 7 spacecraft blasted off from Florida on May 5, 1961. Ten years later, Shepard would leave Earth's atmosphere again to become the fifth man to walk on the moon — and the first one to play golf there.
Born Nov. 18, 1923, to Renza Emerson and Alan Shepard, Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. grew up in rural New Hampshire. After graduating from high school, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating the day after D-Day. An ensign, Shepard spent the last year of World War II on a destroyer in the Pacific.
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, and spent several tours on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. He attended the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School in 1950, and then went on to participate 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. He logged more than 8,000 hours of flight time over the course of his career.
Shepard attended the Naval War College in Rhode Island. Following his 1957 graduation, he was assigned as an aircraft readiness officer on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet.
Upon his return home at the close of World War II, Shepard married Louise Brewer, whom he had met while attending the Naval Academy. The couple had two daughters.
The right stuff
In 1959, 110 test pilots were invited to volunteer for the space flight program headed by the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although Shepard was on the list, a snafu kept him from receiving his invitation. Regardless, he was selected as one of the first seven astronauts for the organization. Known as the Mercury 7, the group included John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Donald "Deke" Slayton, Malcolm "Scott" Carpenter, Walter "Wally" Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. From this prestigious group of highly trained fliers, Shepard was selected to man the first space flight, with Glenn acting as his backup.
The stakes were raised in the space race on April 15, 1961, when the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and he became the first person to orbit the Earth. Gagarin beat the Americans by less than a month. Shepard's launch was initially scheduled for May 2, but was rescheduled twice because of weather conditions. On May 5, Freedom 7 lifted off, carrying Shepard to an altitude of 116 miles for a 15-minute flight. Because of the placement of the porthole windows, the first American in space was unable to catch a glimpse of the stars, and he was strapped in too tight to experience weightlessness. Also, a filter left on the periscope window rendered the Earth below in black and white. [Photos: Freedom 7, America's 1st Human Spaceflight]
Although the Soviets had reached the historic milestone first, Shepard's suborbital flight made a significant worldwide impact because its launch, travel and splashdown were watched on live television by millions of people. By contrast, the details of Gagarin's landing were kept confidential for more than a decade. For his daring achievement, President John F. Kennedy awarded Shepard the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. [Infographic: America's First Spaceship: Project Mercury]
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 Gemini, the next step on the journey toward the moon.
NASA selected Shepard to be part of the first manned Gemini mission. However, he woke one morning dizzy and nauseated, and found himself falling constantly. He was subsequently diagnosed with Meniere's syndrome. Fluid in his inner ear had built up, increasing the sensitivity of the semicircular canals and motion detectors. Shepard was grounded in 1963, forbidden from solo flights in jet planes — or traveling in space.
Shepard switched gears, taking over as the Chief of the Astronaut Office for NASA. He oversaw the activities and schedules of the astronauts and their training and assisted with mission planning. In 1969, he underwent an operation that corrected the problem, allowing him to regain full flight status. Shepard, Stuart Roosa and Ed Mitchell were initially supposed to fly on Apollo 13, but they were pushed back a mission to give everyone extra training, especially Shepard. Shepard was subsequently named commander for the Apollo 14 mission to the moon.
To the moon
Shepard blasted back into space from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 31, 1971, and landed in the Fra Mauro highlands on Feb. 7. At the age of 47, he was the oldest astronaut in the space program at the time. 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."
Shepard and Mitchell spent 33 and a half hours on the moon, the longest stay time, 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. They brought home 94 pounds of lunar samples, including two rocks exceeding 10 pounds apiece.
Over the course of his two space flights, Shepard logged a total of 216 hours and 57 minutes in space.
Back on Earth
In 1974, Shepard retired from NASA as rear admiral. He worked in the private sector, 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, Shepard passed away on July 21, 1998, at the age of 74. His wife followed him just over a month later, on Aug. 25.
— Nola Taylor Redd, SPACE.com Contributor
- Alan Shepard's biography on NASA
- 40th Anniversary of the Mercury 7 Mission
- Flash Back to America's First Spaceflight
Correction: This article was updated June 26, 2013, to correct Shepard's age at his death, the time span between his flights into space and his military service.