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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Alan Shepard Dies, July 21, 1998

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Today in 1998, Alan B. Shepard, Jr. died in Pebble Beach, California. Shepard was a retired US Navy Rear Admiral and astronaut, having had the honor of being the first American to travel into space.

Alan Shepard was born on November 18, 1923 in the small town of Derry, New Hampshire. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1944 and spent the remainder of the Second World War stationed aboard the USS Cogswell, a destroyer deployed to the Pacific. After the war, he received naval flight training and earned his wings in 1947. He spent the next three years with a fighter squadron, making several deployments to the Mediterranean.

Shepard’s life took a turn for the adventurous in 1950 when he graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School. He spent the next few years testing new aircraft and, after a tour as the operations officer of another squadron, returned to the Test Pilot School as an instructor. These assignments and his time at NASA helped him rack up more than 8,000 hours of flying time.

In April, 1959, NASA chose the first seven astronauts for the Mercury program, America’s first manned missions into space. Shepard was a member of this group and was chosen to fly in the first manned Mercury capsule, Freedom 7. The capsule and Shepard were rocketed into space on May 5, 1961, making him the first American to do so. His flight was suborbital, reaching an altitude of 116 miles before returning to Earth 302 miles from Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1964, Shepard was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that causes the victim to experience sudden dizziness and nausea. He lost his flight status with NASA, but not his job. He was reassigned as the Chief of the Astronaut Office, a job that made him responsible for many of the aspects of astronaut training. He received corrective surgery for the Meniere’s and was put back on full flight status in May, 1969.

Shepard was soon picked to command Apollo 13, NASA’s third moon landing mission. But as Shepard had been chosen rather late in the training cycle, he and his two team members (Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa), swapped flights with the crew of Apollo 14. Apollo 13, with Apollo 14’s original crew on board, went on to barely escape disaster on the way to the moon and had to abort their lunar landing.

Apollo 14, with Alan Shepard commanding, lifted off on January 31, 1971. The mission’s lunar module, Antares, set down in the Fra Mauro formation; this was the landing site originally given to Apollo 13. While on the surface, Shepard became the became the first human being to swing a golf club (albeit a makeshift one) on the Moon. Because of the bulkiness of his suit, he could only swing with one arm, and so missed his first few times out. The first ball he struck did not go very far, but the second one went nearly out of sight due to the moon’s low gravity. Although he did not know it then, Alan Shepard would be the only one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts to walk on the moon. Apollo 14’s command module, Kitty Hawk, splashed down safely on February 9.

Shepard retired from the Navy and from the Astronaut Corps on the same day: August 1, 1974. He served on the boards of several corporations and wrote a book with fellow astronaut Deke Slayton. In 1996, he was diagnosed with leukemia, the disease which claimed his life today in 1998.

The US Navy is slated to name a supply ship (currently under construction) after Shepard; it will be completed in 2007. A section of Interstate 93, which runs through Shepard’s hometown of Derry, is named after him.

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