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Alan Shepard - first US man in space

A remarkable story of a man who wouldn't give up on his chance to walk on the moon

One of my prized possessions is an autograph, signed simply "To Anthony, Alan Shepard". I keep it very safe. But who was this Alan Shepard, and what was he famous for?

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard - click for larger photograph. Credit: NASA.

Alan Shepard was supposed to have been on board the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, which as many people will know having seen the movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks, never got to land on the Moon and barely made it back to earth. This story of this remarkable astronaut, who died in 1998, is compelling.

Born in 1923, Shepard hit the world headlines on May 5th, 1961, when he became the first American in space in the tiny Mercury space capsule called Freedom 7. He was one of the original seven astronauts, who have become known as the "Mercury 7".

He was lifted off at 9:34am on that morning and fired 116 miles into the air, travelling 302 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral. He hit a top speed of 5,100 miles per hour before dropping into the Atlantic Ocean. He was only 23 days late - Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin got there before him, but Shepard, and the Americans, would get revenge.

A man full of self-confidence and with nerves of steel, he was to be bitterly disappointed to be taken off the Apollo Moon landing programme when he developed an inner ear infection. However, fate was kind to Shepard - he was originally pencilled in for the Apollo 13 mission which ended in disaster.

Alan Shepard on the Moon

Alan Shepard on the Moon. Click for larger photo. Credit: NASA.

Ten years after his first suborbital history-making flight, Shepard overcame the serious ear infection and returned to space for only his second, and his last, flight as the commander of Apollo 14. He became only the fifth person to walk on the surface of the Moon, and the oldest at 47 years of age.

Shepard spent 33 hours on the moon during the third lunar landing mission and became the only lunar golfer, playfully whacking golf balls with a six-iron. On that flight, Shepard, Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa spent nine days in space; Mitchell and Shepard stayed on the moon for two days.

The first ball he hit was a bit of an embarrassment, but the second one connected and Shepard endeared himself to millions of golfers, and TV viewers, across the globe with his amusing antics.

He is remembered today as a great man, and a true American hero.


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