While astronauts are by definition cool, Alan Shepard holds a special place in my heart for his unique style. He was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, and the only one from the group to make it to the moon. ...where he played golf, because he's awesome.

A very happy pre-launch Alan Shepard is right at home surrounded by wood panelling and avocado vinyl furniture in his tinfoil-silver pressure suit. Credit: NASA

Alan Shepard was the second person to reach space. His Freedom 7 mission was originally scheduled for October 1960, but was delayed by more preparatory work to March 6, 1961, then again to May 5, 1961. Before he made it off-planet, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space and completed an orbit before landing.


Liftoff of the Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) with Alan Shepard on-board. Credit: NASA

Shepard's flight stuck to the postponed schedule. Unlike with Gagarin's fully-automated flight, Shepard had some controls over his craft. This gave him more freedom, but also more opportunities to catastrophically mess up the mission. This stress probably led to the utterance of a simple, poignant, all-denomination, atheist-friendly prayer: "Don't fuck up, Shepard..."

He didn't fuck up, and the mission was successful. The 15-minute ballistic trajectory of Freedom 7 carried Shepard way up to 187 kilometers altitude, before falling back down for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. Just like that, Shepard was in the history books as the second man, and the first American, to reach space.

The first American in space was retrieved from his capsule by a helicopter, somewhere off the coast of Florida. Credit: NASA


Shepard's dry wit came into play once again when reflecting his dramatic recovery from his capsule, as he "... didn't really feel the flight was a success until the recovery had been successfully completed. It's not the fall that hurts; it's the sudden stop."

Shepard being hoisted by helicopter following the Freedom 7 splashdown. Credit: NASA

Shepard was supposed to participate in the Gemini mission, but was diagnosed with Ménière's disease. Fluid pressure in his inner ear built up, causing oversensitivity in motion detection. Ongoing disorientation, dizziness, and nausea does not work well with spaceflight, so he was pulled from flight operations and shoved into logistics. He served as the Chief of the Astronaut Office for the Gemini mission, handling scheduling until undergoing a brand-new surgical procedure in 1969 that restored him to flight-ready condition.

Shepard, chomping on a cigar in the control room during the Gemini 6 liftoff on 15 December 1965. Credit: NASA

Not one to do things tamely, the re-minted astronaut got on the Apollo roster, flying as commander of the third lunar landing as part of Apollo 14. As pilot of the Lunar Module Antares, he proved that the long break and being the oldest astronaut in the program didn't make him rusty, dropping the lander closest to the target landing zone of anyone in the entire Apollo program.

Astronauts are interplanetary geologists, as demonstrated by Shepard's dusty feet next to a lunar boulder. Credit: NASA


The official mission for Apollo 14 was the usual round of squeezing as many experiments as possible into a limited time period. Stuart Roosa remained in orbit, photographing like a mad fiend and germinating seeds, while Edgar Mitchell and Alan Shepard spent two days on the moon. Shepard and Mitchell collected rocks and conducted surface experiments, including blowing things up.

Earth-based practice loading the mortar for geophysical experiments. Credit: NASA


Seismic surveys work by planting a whole bunch of geophones (effectively geologic microphones) into the ground that can detect acoustic waves, then generating an acoustic signal. The easiest way to generate a signal is to blow things up, which is exactly what Shepard and Mitchell, using a mortar to launch four grenades on the lunar surface. By measuring how long it takes for a signal to propagate to the geophones, seismologists can process and invert the signal to determine subsurface structure. So, not only did Shepard and Mitchell get to play with explosives, they also gave scientists data to start determining the interior structure of the moon.

What happened next is why Shepard is the greatest golfer the world has ever known. On February 6, 1971, using the brand-new colour cameras to broadcast his awsomeness, Shepard went golfing.

Golf clubs are way too heavy to take up precious weight-limited cargo, so Shepard only packed the Wilson six-iron head. He attached it to a lunar sample scoop handle, then awkwardly grasped the improvised golf club one-handed with the thick, stiff gloves to smack the golf balls. While he won't win any awards for posture and form, Shepard is the first, and so far only, interplanetary golfer, and that makes him a special champion.

Apollo 14 splashdown in the south Pacific, somewhere near Samoa. Credit: NASA

Once back on Earth, he resumed his logistical duties as Chief of the Astronaut Office in 1971 before retiring in 1974. In his post-NASA life, he worked as an entrepreneur before dying of leukaemia in 1998.


Read more about early rocket development, or current test-programs for new manned missions to deep space. Yes, Shepard's "Miles and miles..." estimate of golf-ball distance is plausible, although not accurate in this instance. Read more about Shepard in this interview with his biographer.