Shepard, Alan Bartlett, Jr.
AstronautEnshrined 1977 1923-1998
The first Mercury astronaut (and American) in space had an appropriately “mercurial” personality. Al Shephard could be one’s best buddy or one’s worst nightmare at a moment’s notice. After Meniere’s Disease temporarily grounded him, Shepherd went to work for his friend Donald “Deke” Slayton in the Astronauts’ office. Younger astronauts were so leery of Shepard’s mood swings that they depended on his secretary to post a daily picture of “Al with a happy face” or “Al with a mad face” to indicate approachability.
- Navy fighter pilot and test pilot with over 8,000 flying hours.
- First American to make a suborbital flight in the Project Mercury program on Freedom 7, May 5th, 1961.
- In 1962 he was named Chief of the Astronauts Office of NASA and was responsible for training astronauts for ten Gemini-Titan and three Apollo-Saturn missions in the next five years.
- Spent more than 33 hours on the moon in 1971 as commander of Apollo 14.
Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. was already a career naval aviator and test pilot when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration selected him as one of seven astronauts to participate in Project Mercury, the United States’ first manned space program. The others were Cooper, Grissom and Slayton of the Air Force, Glenn of the Marines, and Carpenter and Schirra of the Navy. Eventually, Shepard completed his difficult training and was selected to attempt the first American suborbital flight in a Mercury-Redstone rocket.
On May 5th, 1961, the launch countdown started and Shepard received his pre-flight physical, after which the other astronauts joined him at breakfast. To prepare him for his mission, monitoring biomedical sensors were attached to his body before he donned his fully-pressurized space suit. He was then transferred to the launch pad and ascended to the “white room,” where he entered the Freedom 7 spacecraft. After he strapped himself in place and received a final handshake, the latch was sealed.
As the moment of launch neared, the Mercury-Redstone poised for one of the most publicized events in all history and the world prayed for Shepard’s safe return. Three, two, one, ignition, mainstage, liftoff! “Roger, liftoff, and the clock is started,” acknowledged Shepard, as the powerful rocket rose slowly at first, then accelerated. “Okay, Jose, you’re on your way!” responded Slayton, serving as capsule communicator.
Streaking high into the heavens, the Redstone rocket cut off and the Mercury spacecraft separated from it. As the Freedom 7 sped upward on its long arced flight and neared a maximum altitude of 116 miles, Shepard glimpsed the Earth below and exclaimed, “What a beautiful view!” Though he was weightless for five minutes during this period, he performed 27 major tasks and sent 70 communications back to Earth.
As the spacecraft slammed back into the Earth’s atmosphere and decelerated, the G forces pushed Shepard hard against his couch. At 21,000 feet the drogue parachute deployed. Then the main parachute arrested the spacecraft’s plunge. After it splashed down in the Atlantic, Shepard was brought aboard a helicopter and he and the spacecraft were transported to the carrier USS Lake Champlain. As he stepped on deck, Shepard exclaimed “What a ride!”, then inspected his Freedom 7 spacecraft before going below to receive a congratulatory call from President Kennedy. Later, at Grand Bahama Island, Slayton, Grissom, and NASA officials greeted him. Shepard received a hero’s welcome in Washington D.C. He, his wife, mother, and the other astronauts went to the White House, where President Kennedy presented Shepard with NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal.
In July 1961, Astronaut Grissom made the second suborbital flight, paving the way for John Glenn’s successful three-orbit flight in 1962, and setting the stage for manned space exploration. The following year, Shepard was named Chief of the Astronaut Office of NASA, responsible for training astronauts for ten Gemini-Titan and three Apollo-Saturn missions in the next five years.
In 1969 Shepard became Mission Commander of the Apollo-Saturn 14 scheduled to make the third landing on the Moon. In addition, Stuart A. Roosa was named pilot of the Command Module Kitty Hawk and Edgar D. Mitchell pilot of the Lunar Module Antares. Meanwhile, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins made the first lunar landing, followed by that of Conrad, Gordon and Bean.
To prepare, Shepard and his crew trained at the Space Environment Simulation Laboratory and on the terrain of volcanoes in Mexico and Hawaii. They rehearsed in the Lunar Module Mockup, performed in a weightless condition in an aircraft, and flew the Lunar Landing Test Vehicle.
January 31st, 1971: Launch time. Shepard and his crew enjoyed a traditional breakfast with other astronauts before suiting up. Comic moments eased tensions as the countdown proceeded. At 4:03 AM, ignition began! The Apollo-Saturn 14 lifted from its pad and accelerated into Earth orbit, beginning its quarter-million mile journey to the moon and lunar orbit. Then the spacecraft Antares, with Shepard and Mitchell aboard, separated from the Command Module and descended toward the lunar surface. Its small jets guided it to a safe touchdown. As Shepard stepped from the spacecraft he became the fifth man to walk on the moon. He and Mitchell planted the American flag and posed for pictures for each other. Then they erected the communications and test equipment, used the Mobile Equipment Transporter, and gathered 96 pounds of lunar rocks, all recorded by color television. Meanwhile, overhead in the Kitty Hawk, Roosa began extensive experiments while in lunar orbit. A sudden unexpected moment lightened the mood when Shepard attached a golf club head to his hand tool and whacked away at several balls. He reportedly made the first “crater-in-one.”
After spending 33 hours on the lunar surface, Shepard and Mitchell resealed themselves in the Lunar Module. As it lifted off, they guided it toward the Command Module. As they approach, Roosa put the Kitty Hawk into a rollover just before accomplishing the docking maneuver. The spacecraft then began its return to Earth. As it descended into the Earth’s atmosphere, parachutes lowered it to a safe splashdown in the South Pacific. Helicopters soon lifted the astronauts aboard and transported them to the USS New Orleans, where they entered the Quarantine Facility, and later showed off their lunar rocks. After the Apollo-Saturn 14 mission ended, the astronauts and their wives went to the White House as honored guests. At the Capitol, the astronauts reported to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, and Astronaut Mitchell addressed the House of Representatives. Later the astronauts received New York City’s Medal of Honor.
Soon after Shepard resumed his duties as Chief of the Astronaut Office, he received a promotion to rear admiral. He served until 1974, when he retired, ending his 30-year career as a naval aviator and 15-year career as a NASA Astronaut.
Alan Shepard died on July 21st, 1998 at the age of 74.
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