Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr.
By: John Shepler
In the powdery surface of the moon at Fra Mauro lie two golf balls. They are waiting to be pitched high into the inky starlit vacuum and on to their next roll, some hundreds of yards farther along the surface. They are waiting for a worthy golfer. They are waiting for someone special to pick up where Alan Shepard, the man who first struck them, left off. They are waiting for that one man or woman who wants it badly, the one who just won't give up until they've played the course at Fra Mauro.
Alan Shepard was one of those kids who hung around airports when aviation was just getting established in the thirties. After school and on weekends, he'd high-tail it to the landing field so he could help push airplanes in and out of hangars. Sometimes the pilots would let him sit at the controls and work the stick. When they felt it was time for a bigger reward they'd take Alan flying with them. He knew then that aviation was going to be his life. It was just a matter of sticking with it.
Alan Shepard didn't have a privileged upbringing, nor did he suffer great hardships. He started off just like most of us. Actually, his early education was more in the setting of an earlier era. The rural schoolhouse in East Derry, New Hampshire had one teacher, six grades and one room. Alan was in awe of the teacher who seemed nine feet tall in recollection. She was a knuckle-rapping disciplinarian who taught him to study and stick to it. Alan took to it. He took to it so well that he finished all six grades in only five years.
Alan's boyhood hero was Charles Lindbergh, first to fly the Atlantic in the "Spirit of St. Louis." Perhaps it was the excitement of those early days of airplanes, new frontiers and brave pilots. Perhaps he idolized Lindbergh and programmed himself with the notion of being the first man to cross a new frontier. Perhaps it was that, or the lesson of Lindbergh's triumphant landing at Le Bourget airfield in Paris that indelibly marked him with the idea that the impossible is not impossible for someone who gets out there and does it. Something during those early years set Alan Shepard in the pattern he'd follow for the rest of his career. Get out there, get it done, set an example for others by being the best at what you are doing, and don't give up until you make it happen.
Alan's smarts, discipline and energy did not go unnoticed in the community. A friend of his father's, a Naval Academy graduate, thought Alan was pretty bright and just might pass the academy exams with a little extra study. He suggested to Alan Bartlett Shepard, Sr. that "Maybe he could get into the Naval Academy, become a Naval Officer, and go through flight school. Then he can go through college and fly airplanes at the same time. He could become an aviator and use his talents."
That's just what happened. Alan graduated from Annapolis, applied himself to being a standout aircraft carrier pilot, then an exceptional test pilot. When 110 invitations were sent out to the best of the best military pilots to join the fledgling space program, Alan's drive to keep a little ahead of the pack paid off. He was selected to be among the Mercury 7. Then there was one. The one who would follow in Charles Lindbergh's footsteps and start to open a new frontier in the heavens. His destiny was fulfilled as Freedom VII lifted off the pad at Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961. Alan Shepard would forever be the first American in space.
This story could end there, and it almost did. While preparing for the Gemini missions, Alan developed dizzy spells that were diagnosed as Meniere's Disease, a problem of the inner ear. Doctors told him he had maybe a 20% chance of correcting it...perhaps it might go away on its own. But he shouldn't count on that. NASA said they'd let him fly again if the problem went away and that in the meantime he could help select the astronauts for the upcoming missions. So he moved to Houston and kept himself in shape while he waited for something to work out medically. Six long years passed.
Finally, Alan Shepard found a doctor that could correct his inner ear disorder, and he was miraculously back on flight status. He jumped at the assignment to Apollo XIV and did a little work behind the scenes to prepare for destiny yet again. Just before re-entering the lunar excursion module for the launch off the moon, Alan reached into his pocket in full view of the TV camera and produced the head of a six iron golf club. It had been specially fabricated to screw into the end of a shaft used to retrieve dust samples from the moon's surface. Swinging one-armed in the bulky space suit, he chipped a 40 yard hole-in-one to a crater and then swatted the second ball in a high arc he described as going for "miles and miles." It is said that as many people recall seeing Alan Shepard playing golf on the moon as remember Neil Armstrong's first tentative steps down the ladder in 1969.
Alan Shepard could have given up at any time. But if he had,
he wouldn't have been the first American in space. He probably
wouldn't have had the opportunity to exchange thoughts with his
boyhood hero when Charles Lindbergh visited NASA. Certainly,
there would have been no one to leave those golf balls on the
moon...and the challenge to the next generation to get back there
and keep them in play. That privilege will go to someone who
also has the "right stuff," the power that comes with
not giving up.
Also visit these related sites:
Interview with Alan Shepard - A 1991 interview, in which the astronaut discusses his personal history and his space flights. Provided by the Academy of Achievement.
Vestibular Disorder Support - Club Spin offers a supportive community for those living with Vestibular Disorders like Menieres Disease, Benign Paroxysmal PositionalVertigo (BPPV), Hydrops, Perilymph Fistula and others that cause vertigo, hearing loss, tinnitus, loss of balance and a whole host of other symptoms.
Support the Space Shuttle Children's Trust Fund - Learn how you can help support the 12 children left behind by the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia's crew, plus many other worthy causes.
Astronomylinks.com - astronomy and space links, shortcuts, favorites and bookmarks.
Copyright 1998 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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