Shepard, Jr., Alan

Shepard, Jr., Alan
▪ 1999

      American astronaut (b. Nov. 18, 1923, East Derry, N.H.—d. July 21, 1998, Monterey, Calif.), was the first American in space, riding in Freedom 7, the Mercury capsule, on May 5, 1961; his 15-minute suborbital flight included 5 minutes spent beyond Earth's atmosphere at a peak altitude of about 185 km (115 mi). He was also the fifth person to walk on the Moon as commander of Apollo 14 (Jan. 31-Feb. 9, 1971). After graduating (1944) from the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md., Shepard began his military career aboard a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. He earned his naval aviator wings in 1947, qualified as a test pilot in 1951, and experimented with high-altitude aircraft, in-flight fueling systems, and landings on angled carrier decks. In April 1959 Shepard was chosen by the newly created NASA as one of the seven top test pilots (dubbed "the Magnificent Seven") for the Mercury space project. He was selected from this original group of astronauts for the first American manned space mission. Although Shepard's flight came 23 days after the launch of Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin, the first human to travel in space, it energized U.S. space efforts and made Shepard a national hero. He was later grounded due to an inner-ear problem until corrective surgery allowed him to return to full flight status in 1969. Two years later, at the age of 47, he embarked for the lunar highlands near the Fra Mauro crater on Apollo 14. Near the end of his Moon walk, Shepard—an avid golfer—swung at two golf balls with a makeshift six-iron club as a playful demonstration for live television cameras of the weak lunar gravity. After retiring from NASA and the navy in 1974 as a rear admiral, he went into private business. Shepard received numerous awards, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Congressional Medal of Honor. He also coauthored, with fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon (1994).

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