The anniversary was yesterday, but we are going to carry on. On May 5th, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to leave Earth’s atmosphere and make a suborbital trip into space. The Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin beat him by about three weeks due to a series of postponements.
That alone would be the accomplishment of a lifetime, but it does not begin to cover Alan Shepard’s career. He went to the Naval Academy during WWII and saw service on a destroyer in the Pacific in the last two years of the war. He was a gunnery officer when his ship was assigned picket duty facing the kamikaze attacks at the Battle of Okinawa.
He went to flight school in 1946 . Started his flying in F4U Corsairs on the carrier USS Franklin Roosevelt. In 1950 he went to test pilot school and during his time as a test pilot, he flew the F2H Banshee, F3H Demon, F-8 Crusader, F4D Skyray and the Grumman F-11 Tiger. Starting with the Corsair, his test planes are a history of the development of jet fighters.
You can imagine what the selection process looked like for the first Astronauts. The process began with 508 successful test pilots. They picked 110, then asked for volunteers. Eliminations and declines got them to 32. Testing, training, and selection got them to 7. These were the Mercury 7.
Alan Shepard went first.
He would have flown a Gemini mission, but he was grounded and removed from flight status from a condition that caused him dizziness due to excess fluid in his inner ear. Developments in a surgical treatment for the condition allowed him to return to flying and astronaut status in May of 1969.
He flew as commander of Apollo 14 in February of 1971. He was the oldest man to walk on the moon and the only one of the original Mercury astronauts to do so. He’s also the guy that hit golf balls on the moon.
He retired as a Rear Admiral in 1974.
I have not done his story justice, no blog post could. His other accomplishments, the awards he received, the life he lead, deserve to be remembered. It was an American life lived at the height of America’s apogee.
Alan Shepard: Dear Lord – please don’t let me f*** up.
Gordon Cooper: [at launch control center] I didn’t quite copy that. Say again, please.
Alan Shepard [realizing his voice is being monitored]: Uh, I said everything is A-OK!