Shepard was 37 the day he became the first American in space; 37 years later, in July 1998, I was working at The Sun when I received a call from an editor, telling me that Shepard had died and asking me to contribute a few paragraphs to his obituary. I interviewed retired Vice Admiral Bill Lawrence, who had served with Shepard in a carrier squadron. But a quick Internet search told me that, except for a thin 1962 young adult book, no biography existed on our first astronaut. When I decided to make up for that omission, I quickly discovered why no one had ventured to write about Shepard.
Shepard felt no compunction to explain to the world, to anyone, who he was and where he had been. He hoarded his privacy to the point of turning down many lucrative endorsement offers. “I’ve gone to great lengths to maintain my privacy,” he once said, after rejecting a request to appear in an American Express television ad. “I don’t want to give it up for the lure of commercial endorsements.” In death, those loyal to Shepard continued to protect that privacy. His many loyal friends knew what a diligently private man he was, and they respected that, which made me all the more grateful to those who nonetheless spoke with me at length, who invited me into their homes, opened photo albums and scrapbooks, offered a meal, a Scotch, a bed—and a story.
I spent four years researching Shepard’s life. The result is, I hope, a compelling story about a fascinating man, and a book that will reveal new insights into Shepard’s complicated and competitive personality, his relationship with President John F. Kennedy, his unsung contributions to naval aviation and the space program, and his aggressive fight back from a debilitating mid-1960s illness (during which time he became a millionaire in his spare time).