“Don Draper in a Spacesuit” – The Life of Alan Shepard

Alan_ShepardPacked tighter than a sardine in the one-man Freedom 7 capsule, 37-year-old Alan Shepard couldn’t wait any longer. His mission – which originally was going to make Shepard the first human in space – had already been delayed weeks, allowing Yuri Gagarin and the Russians to beat him in blasting off for the stars. Now, in his fourth hour sitting on the launch pad, he was losing control of his temper… and bladder. Since there was no bathroom on board nor facility for this (as it was only to be a 16 minute flight), mission control told Shepard he had two choices- hold it or go in his suit. So, Shepard went in his suit. With technical issues still delaying take off and him now, well, wet, Shepard snapped and yelled at mission control one of the most famous lines in NASA history – “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

Finally, at 9:34 AM on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the second human, and first American, to make it to space… soaking in his own urine. Unlike Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard is perhaps the most iconic astronaut that people know least about. Here’s the story of the man who biographer Neal Thompson once called “Don Draper in a Spacesuit” – Alan Shepard.

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. was born on November 18, 1923 in the small town of Derry, New Hampshire to a deeply rooted New England family. In fact, several of his ancestors were among the first Europeans to come to the New World, sailing over the Mayflower and helping to govern the Plymouth Colony. He was a son of a retired Army colonel and grandson of a successful businessman, allowing him to live the childhood of a rural relatively well-off New Englander. He went to classes in a one-room schoolhouse where he completed six grades in five years because, as Shepard later put it, “I’d like to say I was smart enough to finish six grades in five years, but I think perhaps the teacher was just glad to get rid of me.”

Inheriting a strong work ethic from his family, Shepard had several jobs as a kid – including paperboy and working at his local airplane hangar (sometimes he even got a free ride). At an early age, he loved airplanes and could often be found building models of these in his home. As he later explained in an interview, it was Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic that inspired him to become a pilot.

In 1941, Shepard entered the Navy as a pilot. Described by one classmate as  “undistinguished, but a real likable guy,” he graduated nearly exactly in the middle of his class (462 out of 913) in 1944. He was immediately shipped to the Pacific for the tail end of World War II.  After the war, he stayed in the Navy as a pilot and became one of the country’s most experienced and best prepared test pilots.  He had a hand in testing and trying out some of America’s most well-known innovative aircrafts at the time, such as the F4D Skyray, the F2H3 Banshee and the F5D Skylancer. He was also willing to take risks, earning the reputation for being fearless.

On October 4, 1957, Russia sent a message to the entire world when they launched Sputnik. To certain Americans, it was unacceptable that the Soviets were beating them in the space race. Shortly after, newly formed NASA reached out to 110 of the country’s test pilots to see if they had the right stuff to become America’s first “research astronaut-candidates.” After initially not receiving the first acceptance letter due to a mail snafu (much to his worry), Shepard found out he was selected to be one of Project Mercury’s “Original Seven.”

While his wife and mother were excited for his new career, his military father was decidedly not.  Shepard said of this,

My father took the attitude, “Well, what is this you’re going to do, son?” Because he could see a deviation in the military career, in which I had been relatively successful up until that point. And even at that age — gosh, I was what? 35 years old then, give or take. And when your old man says, “You’re gonna do what, son?” there is a little pause of reflection. Fortunately, in my case, he lived long enough to see me go to the Moon and back. And one evening, we’d had dinner, the ladies had retired, and we were having a drink in front of the fire, and he said, “You remember when I said ‘What are you going to do, son?'” I said, “Yes sir, I certainly do.” And he said, “Well I was wrong.”

While Shepard was no doubt a model trainee and well on his way to being America’s first official astronaut, he also gained a reputation while training at Cape Canaveral as a cocksure, arrogant, partying ladies’ man. According to Tom Wolfe’s seminal book “The Right Stuff,” he may have been button down at home in New Hampshire, but Shepard was known as “Smilin’ Al” at the Cape. As Wolfe noted,

There had always been a part of the Military Wife’s Compact that tacitly granted an officer a little latitude in this area.  Naturally, there would be times when a military man would be sent far from home, perhaps for extended periods, and he might find it necessary to satisfy his manly urges on these far-off terrains.  There was even the implication that such urges were a good sign of a fighting man’s virility.  So the wife and the military itself would avert their eyes and stand mute- so long as the officer caused no scandal and did nothing to shake the solidity of his marriage and his family.  This tradition had originated, of course, long before the airplane made it possible for an officer to reach the distant terrain in two or three hours for a long weekend or an overnight stand.  Traditions often began on a moment’s notice in the military, but they took a long time to die, and this one was in no danger of dying at Cocoa Beach.

Driving around in a Cadillac, drinking and womanizing may not have endeared him to his superiors, but it made him admired by his fellow astronauts, save for John Glenn, Shepard’s chief rival. Things eventually came to a head and the seven pilots gathered for a private meeting to address the issue,

The next day the seven of them were in the living room of a suite that had been set aside for their use, when Glenn launched into a lecture, along the following lines: the playing around with girls, the cookies, had gotten out of hand.  He knew, and they knew, that it could blow up into something very unfortunate.  They were all squarely in the public eye.  They had the opportunity of a lifetime, and he was sorry but he just wasn’t going to stand by and let other people compromise the whole thing because they couldn’t keep their pants zipped.

Unfortunately for Glenn, the message didn’t land,

Staring straight back at Glenn, volt for volt, was Al Shepard.  The others, Glenn included, understood Shepard least of all, because there seemed to be two Al Shepards, and no one ever knew for sure which one he was dealing with.  Back home at Langley you saw one Alan Shepard, the utterly, and if necessary, icily correct career Navy officer…

But inside his locker he kept “Smilin’ Al of the Cape!” …  No, he didn’t flash the famous Smilin’ Al Shepard look until he stepped out of his airplane Away from Home…  Then Al looked like a different human being, as if he had removed his ice mask.  He would come out of the airplane with his eyes dancing. A great goomba-goomba grin would take over his face.  You halfway expected so see him start snapping his fingers, because everything about him seemed to be asking the question, “Where’s the action?”  If he then stepped into his Corvette- well, then, there you had it:  The picture of the perfect Fighter Jock Away from Home…

Needless to say, “He informed Glenn that he was way out of line.  He told him not to try to foist his view of morality on anybody else in the group.”

It is perhaps not surprising that Shepard hardly hung out with his colleagues and, in fact, was considered something of an enigma to them due to his contrasting personalities and aloofness. He was described by some who worked with him at this time as a “loner,” wanting to “shut people out” and not ever share personal details of his life.

Despite his playboy lifestyle when away from home, and the potential major scandal that could produce in mid-20th century America, NASA picked Shepard to be the first in space. Their reasoning, at least according to Thompson’s biography, was that Shepard was quite simply the best pilot of the group and they couldn’t afford a failure here. As a NASA official said to Thompson, “We wanted to put our best foot forward” and Shepard was exactly that. The announcement was made to the other six in January 1961, much to the chagrin of his rival Glenn.

As Shepard described in a 1991 interview, “That was competition at its best. Not because of the fame or the recognition that went with it, but because of the fact that America’s best test pilots went through this selection process down to seven guys, and of those seven, I was the first one to go. That will always be the most satisfying thing for me.”

In the months leading up to his mission, several test flights went wrong, including two that had to be blown up due to malfunctions. There was a growing fear that “our boys always botch it” and Shepard may not make it back to Earth. Despite this, Shepard remained calm.

People have said over the years, “Boy, you really must have been scared.” Fortunately, I wasn’t scared. Nervous, but not frightened to death. Because if you have a person there who is petrified, he is not going to be any good as pilot, as a backup, as an observer, or whatever his function is going to be. You have to be trained to the point where you absolutely are not panicked… I think all of us certainly believed the statistics which said that probably 88% chance of mission success and maybe 96% chance of survival. And we were willing to take those odds.

Finally, in May, the wild man of NASA’s space program was blasted off and spent about a quarter of an hour in space. Of this flight, he stated,

I had a chance to sit back and relax a little bit, and again go through the process of “What do I do?” for the first few minutes and first few seconds of the flight. And so I was really pretty relaxed by the time that lift-off finally occurred. I guess my pulse really wasn’t much over about 110 or so. I’ve forgotten exactly what it was, but everybody thought I was a pretty cool customer.

At that point, you are basically thinking about, “What do I do if this goes wrong? What do I do if that goes wrong?” You know what critical things have to happen in sequence. The fact that you are accelerating with the thrust of the rocket is good, it’s very positive. You know that the rocket is doing its job and it’s doing it correctly. You’re just going over a checklist of one thing after the other. You’ve done it in the simulator so many times, you don’t have a real sense of being excited when the flight is going on. You’re excited before, but as soon as the liftoff occurs, you are busy doing what you have to do.

I remember just reaching the apex of the trajectory, when I was going to be in the middle of the weightlessness, and I was looking at the periscope, and all of a sudden I said, “You know, somebody is going to ask me how it feels to be weightless, so you better pay attention to how it feels to be weightless.” So I was going through the motions of flying, but at the same time trying to assess physiologically how I felt. Was I dizzy, or confused? And so on. And then I thought, “Well, somebody is going to ask me how the Earth looks.” And so I looked down through the periscope — which was all that we had at that point — and made a few remarks, I think, on the tape, or perhaps on the radio.

Then I had to get ready for reentry, so enough of that subjective thinking and back to the objectivity required to get this baby oriented to come back in. So you see, you could really go through a whole gamut of feelings, of nervousness and elation. Obviously at that point I was delighted. The rocket had worked perfectly, and all I had to do was survive the reentry forces. You do it all, in a flight like that, in a rather short period of time, just 16 minutes as a matter of fact.

Only 16 minutes, but that was enough to secure his legacy as an American icon. Splashing down safely close to Bermuda, he was whisked away to the White House to meet President Kennedy. Several days later, a parade with over 200,000 attendees was held in his honor.

After his historic flight, Shepard hoped to go back to space. He would do just that, but it would take longer than he anticipated. Shepard was selected to head up the Gemini missions, where NASA would continually send humans into space in preparation for a Moon landing, but was felled by balance, nausea and ear problems. It was later discovered to be Ménière’s disease, an inner ear condition that can cause vertigo, pain and loss of balance- a potentially fatal ailment for a pilot or an astronaut.

While he was stuck on the ground helping to monitor the missions rather than actually on them (unlike Glenn, who became the third person in space), the condition may have saved his life. As Thompson noted in a later interview, it was likely that Shepard would have been on Apollo I, which ended tragically.

Apollo_14_ShepardIn 1969, a surgical procedure cured him of the disease and allowed him to start working himself back to flight condition. Ten years after first going to space, he commanded Apollo 14 to the Moon.

While the goals of the mission were to collect samples, explore craters and test instruments, the most remembered aspect of this trip was when Shepard brought out his six iron and golf ball. He said of this,

The deal I made with the boss was that if things were messed up on the surface, I wouldn’t play with it, because we would be accused of being too frivolous. But, if things had gone well, which they did, then the last thing I was going to do, before climbing up the ladder to come home, was to whack these two golf balls. Which I did, and I folded up the collapsible golf club and brought it back with me. The balls are still up there. Perhaps the youngsters of today will go up and play golf with them some time, 25 or 30 years from now.

Speaking of the Apollo Missions, a common “Greatest Generation / Moon” myth is that during the 1950s and 1960s Americans were all crazy about getting to the Moon.  In fact, according to Smithsonian space historian Roger Launius, during the early days of the Apollo missions, the U.S. space program was one of the top government programs Americans listed that they thought should be dropped, with a full 60% of Americans feeling that the U.S. was spending too much money on space flight. Support dropped even further after Apollo 11.

Unsurprisingly from this, after returning to Earth from Apollo 14, people would occasionally ask Shepard things like “What was the value of going to the Moon given all the millions of dollars we spent up there?” He stated,

I say, “Now wait a minute. You realize that I went to the Moon and back, and I didn’t leave a single dollar up there.” And they say, “Where did all these millions of dollars go?” And I say, “Every single dollar that was spent on the space program, went into the pockets of the individuals who worked on it: the contractors, the subcontractors, the vendors. It went to feed their children, put clothes on their back, send them to school. They say, “Yeah, I guess that’s right, but how about all this high tech stuff that you left up there?” And I say, “We had some pretty sophisticated materials up there, but you probably couldn’t get five cents on the dollar for them today. However, the people who developed that are still here on the Earth, and the research and development of techniques that they developed for that are here, and that’s being used today to improve communications satellites, and so on.”

Shepard retired from NASA in 1974 and went on to become a very successful businessman, becoming the first multimillionaire astronaut. (No small feat given how little the astronauts actually earned while at that job- see: The Fascinating World of Apollo Astronaut Life Insurance Policies)

He died in July of 1998 at the age of 74 of complications due to leukemia, just a few months before his old rival, John Glenn, was sent up in the space shuttle, becoming the oldest person ever to go into space at the age of 77.

annie2(By the way, 95 year old John Glenn and his now 96 year old wife Annie are both still going strong after 73 years of marriage. They first met and became close friends when she was 3 and he 2.)

As for Shepard, his wife of 53 years, Louise, died unexpectedly just a few weeks after his own death in 1998.  They were both cremated and their ashes spread out together in Stillwater Cove, California.

A few years before his death, Shepard gave a rare in-depth interview concerning his thoughts on his life and some of the rather unique experiences he had, including getting the chance to look up at Earth from the Moon:

I was going about the little chores when I came to a rest period and looked up at the Earth. The first time really seeing it in the black sky, the blue planet all by itself up there. That was an emotional moment. Some of the emotion was a result of having successfully arrived, a little sense of relief, but I think all of us, in our own ways, have expressed the same kind of feeling.

Seeing the Earth, even though it is four times as large as the Moon, but still it looks fragile. Still, it looks small. You think it’s pretty big when you’re back there among your friends and it’s 25,000 miles around, and so on. But from that distance you realize it is, in fact, fragile. It is, in fact, a small part only of our solar system, much less the rest of the universe.

I think all of us have expressed that. Maybe if people had a chance to see this, they wouldn’t be so parochial, they wouldn’t be so interested in their own particular territories. That will come in time, I think. Perhaps we could put the Security Council on the space station, and let them try to see where their little bailiwick is. To me and, I think, to all of us, it was a realization that our world is finite, it is small, it is fragile, and we need to start thinking about how to take care of it.

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Bonus Fact:

  • On July 21, 1969 at 02:56 UTC, Neil Armstrong forever stamped his name in the history books by putting his foot on the Moon. Armstrong getting to do this almost never happened due to the fact that he turned his application in to NASA about a week after the June 1, 1962 deadline, making him ineligible for that historic second round of astronaut hirings.  Lucky for Armstrong, Dick Day, who was the one to encourage Armstrong to apply in the first place and was working at NASA as the assistant head of Flight Crew Operations, clandestinely slipped Armstrong’s application into the candidate resume folders before the applications were reviewed by the selection panel.  Said Day, “I really don’t know why Neil delayed his application, but he did, and all the applications came to me, since I was the head of flight crew training. But he had done so many things so well at Edwards.  He was so far and away the best qualified, more than any other, certainly as compared to the first group of astronauts.  We [Day and Walt Williams] wanted him in.” It has been speculated since, whether accurately or not is anyone’s guess, that the lateness of the application may have had something to do with Armstrong’s two year old daughter, Karen, tragically dying a few months earlier from complications due to a tumor growing on her brain stem.
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