Biography of Astronaut Alan Shepard

Alan Bartlett Shepard (1923-1998) was a pilot in the U.S. Navy, the first American astronaut in space, and the commander of the Apollo 14 mission to the Moon. He was decorated by the navy, by NASA, and with the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He died of leukemia in California in 1998.

– Early Years and Military Service –

Shepard was born into a military family in East Derry, New Hampshire, and continued the family career by attending the U.S. Naval Academy and then graduating into the service in 1944, during the final months of the Second World War. After being stationed aboard a destroyer in the Pacific, Shepard trained as a pilot, earned his wings after the end of the war, and then served aboard aircraft carriers as well as at naval air stations.

In 1950, Shepard took the single fateful step which united the early NASA astronauts: he took training as a test pilot. Over the  next several years, Shepard logged time on a range of experimental aircraft, including the F5D Skylancer, as well as carrying out tests of new procedures and operations, such as aerial refueling and carrier landing trials. By the late 1950s, he had logged thousands of hours in the air, and, after a brief period as an instructor, joined the Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet’s staff.

– Project Mercury and Project Gemini –

This could have been the end of Shepard’s flying career, but in 1958 he was recruited by NASA into the most ambitious test flight program of all: the recruitment and selection process for the first astronaut corps, a group of seven men which NASA intended to fly in its first manned spaceflight program, the Mercury project. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard blasted into orbit aboard Freedom 7, his tiny capsule borne by a Redstone missile on a suborbital flight. 

Freedom 7, known officially as Mercury-Redstone 3, enjoyed a 16-minute flight, and carried Shepard into history as the first American in space. In truth, the mission was only partially successful in its principal political objective, demonstrating American technological superiority: Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat Shepard into orbit earlier in 1961, and, thanks to the superior capabilities (at least in that respect) of his Vostok 1, even spent time in orbit. Nevertheless, Shepard’s flight was heralded as a grand achievement for the American space program, and foreshadowed the future of all American manned space travel.

Shepard was initially scheduled to fly again on a later spacecraft in the Mercury series, this time launched on a more capable Atlas rocket, but the Mercury program was ended before he could do so. He was immediately transferred to a command seat for the next project, Gemini, but unfortunately was diagnosed with an inner ear condition known as Meniere’s disease during training, rendering him unable to fly. Instead, Gus Grissom (later tragically killed in the Apollo 1 fire) and John Young flew that spacecraft. Shepard was relegated to a desk job as Chief of the Astronaut Office, making him responsible for training, crew readiness, and evaluation of active-duty astronauts.

– Apollo 14 –

Instead of Gemini, Shepard got his chance to return to space in the even more prestigious Apollo project. Along with pilots Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell, Shepard went to the moon aboard Apollo 14 in January 1971. This made him the oldest astronaut to land on the Moon, and the only one of the original Mercury astronauts to do so.

Despite some technical glitches, Apollo 14’s lander successful reached the lunar surface, and Shepard and Mitchell disembarked to christen the site Frau Mauro Base. The two men spent a day on the Moon, conducting seismic studies and collecting rock samples. Shepard also earned the distinction of playing golf on the moon, using a six-iron he had brought aboard the lunar module from Earth. The command module from the Apollo 14 flight was exhibited for some time at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, but is now located at the Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida.

– After Apollo –

After retiring from the space program following Apollo 14, Shepard turned to the private sector, where he already had considerable investments and achievements. He became a successful corporate director during the 1970s, as well as publishing a book, “Moon Shot,” about the Apollo space program.

In 1998, Shepard died of leukemia in California, after struggling for several years with the debilitating cancer. Several weeks later, his wife, Louise, passed away as well. Both were cremated; however, unlike some of his fellow astronauts, Shepard had his ashes committed to the sea rather than launched into space.