Cool & Cocky – Light This Candle
May 5, 1961: First American in Space
On this day in 1961, Alan Shepard piloted Freedom 7 to become the first American to travel into space. The flight was originally scheduled for March but unplanned preparatory work postponed the flight several times. To the chagrin of NASA, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on April 12, 1961.
Shepard make a fifteen minute suborbital flight aboard the Mercury capsule Freedom 7 as he reached an altitude of 115 miles, during which he experienced about five minutes of weightlessness. Unlike Gagarin’s flight which was strictly on auto pilot, Shepard had some control of Freedom 7, in particular the attitude (lateral, vertical, and longitudinal axis). The launch was seen by millions.
Shepard sat on the launch pad, waiting inside his rocket for over 4 hours while engineers tackled one problem and then another. The wait was longer than anyone expected and Shepard ended up having to urinate inside his spacesuit, claiming otherwise his bladder would burst. Shortly before the launch, Shepard said to himself: “Don’t fuck up, Shepard …”
Finally, when one more problem cropped up, Shepard exclaimed, “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”
Neal Thompson, author of the Shepard Bio, “Light This Candle” said, “He was an aircraft carrier pilot, a test pilot, drove fast cars, smoked cigars, drank martinis—he was stylish and cool and cocky. I’ve described him as Don Draper in a spacesuit. He represented that “Mad Men” era – cool and suave and all that.”
According to Gene Kranz in his book, Failure Is Not an Option, “When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, he replied, ‘The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.’”
At age 47 Shepard made his second space flight as commander of Apollo 14, America’s third moon landing. While on the moon Shepard used a Wilson six iron head attached to a lunar scoop handle to drive golf balls. Wearing a space suit and thick gloves he was forced to swing with one hand. He struck 2 balls driving the second, as he jokingly put it, “miles and miles and miles.”
The Moon Club, a specially crafted 6-iron club head, weighing 16.5 ounces, carried by Alan Shepard onboard the Apollo 14 mission to the moon, alongside the sock he used to sneak the club head onboard, now at the USGA Headquarters in Far Hills, NJ.
Shepard died of leukemia on July 21, 1998 two years after being diagnosed. His wife of 53 years, Louise, died five weeks afterward. Both were cremated, and their ashes scattered together by a Navy helicopter in front of their Pebble Beach home.