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).
In the history books, Shepard is of course known for becoming the first American in space in 1961, and the fifth man on the moon (and the first to hit a golf ball there) in 1971. Anyone who has read about the Mercury Seven astronauts or seen their story depicted in film knows that, as a person, Alan Shepard was famous for his frosty, condescending demeanor. The “Icy Commander” they called him, and I have to confess that, in the early stages of my research, I worried often that as I dug deeper into Shepard’s life, I might find a man I disliked, someone who was all ice, no humanity. I would wake up at night terrified that I was dedicating my career to an unworthy topic. And I dreaded the day I might stumble across the deep dark secret that lurked behind Shepard’s need for privacy.
I did find sufficient evidence that Shepard was not a universally well-liked man, a fact that was often confirmed by his closest friends. Astronaut Eugene Cernan, who considered Shepard a good friend and a good man, confessed to me that Shepard was also sometimes an “asshole.” Astronaut Gordon Cooper told me that he loved Shepard “like a brother,” but that Shepard could also be “indiscreet” and “bitterly competitive, to the point of being cutthroat.” In fact, Cooper blamed Shepard for taking his place on Apollo 14 through a shrewd bit of internal politicking.
Astronaut Scott Carpenter (I learned from two lengthy background investigations conducted by the FBI on Shepard, which I managed to obtain from the FBI) once accused Shepard of “swindling” him in a business deal. And Betty Grissom, the wife of deceased astronaut Gus Grissom, told me that Shepard “really didn’t want to have anything to do with the rest of us, the common folk.”
Alan Shepard confounded people. He angered, intimidated and embarrassed them; insulted, taunted, or—worst of all—ignored them. Yet for all his maddening iciness, people were drawn to him. Just beneath his cold shell was an intelligent, curious man who could be charming, hilarious, warm, inviting, and generous.
There was no way to anticipate which of Shepard’s personalities would emerge on a given day: aloof and remote one day, buying you drinks the next. Possibly the only consistent aspect of his character was its unpredictable duality. It was that and the obsessive drive to be, as one astronaut told me, “better than anyone else.”
At every stage of his life, Shepard’s effect on family, friends, and colleagues was that of a competitor in a hurry, constantly lurching forward, with no stomach for delays or incompetence. He was attracted to people with something to offer, those with skills, information, or money who could help him achieve his goals. But if you had nothing to offer, “you’d better get out of town,” one longtime friend said.
“He was hard to get to know. But once he put his arm around you, you knew he was there,” astronaut Deke Slayton’s wife, Bobbie, told me. “If you were a friend of Al’s and you needed something, you could call him and he’d break his neck trying to get it for you. If you were in, you were in. It was just tough to get in.”
From people such as Bobbie Slayton I learned one of Shepard’s deep dark secrets was that he could be kind and generous. Late in life, he worked for charity groups and donated many thousands of dollars. Shepard preferred not to show that side of himself, however. He would rather be remembered as an ice-in-his-veins naval aviator.
Shepard’s Navy career began with a war-shortened three years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he preferred attending parties and hops with local Annapolis girls (aka “crabs”) to his studies, and once came dangerously close to getting expelled. Despite being two inches shorter than the rest of the team, Shepard also rowed varsity crew.
In World War II—which he never spoke about publicly—he spent a harrowing year on board the destroyer Cogswell (DD-651). His ship was battered and nearly sunk by typhoons, and he dodged and fired at kamikazes during “radar picket duty” north of Okinawa. His was the first Navy ship to enter Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremonies.
Shepard’s aviation training then began in Corpus Christi, where he once earned a “down check” and—just like at the Naval Academy—came dangerously close to bilging out. But in time, Shepard began forcing himself to strive for perfection, especially in the cockpit of an airplane, where he learned to fly with confidence, without fear, always in control and with an uncanny spatial awareness that cannot be taught. “He could fly anything,” one colleague told me. Bill Lawrence called him “the best aviator I’ve ever known.”
And yet, despite significant accomplishments as a carrier pilot and a test pilot at Patuxent River, Shepard also had a persistent habit of infuriating superiors by flouting Navy rules, flying dangerously low over beaches, beneath bridges, and upside down. He was “flamboyant” and “indulgent,” one former squadron commander told me. His “flat-hatting” once took him to the brink of a Navy court martial. And yet, those same flinty, self-assured qualities earned him a spot as one of the nation’s first astronauts.
“He was an egotist” and “a typical New Englander . . . hard, cold,” former NASA flight director Chris Kraft said. “But he was all business when it came to flying.”
When he joined the Mercury Seven astronauts, the same question simmered constantly: Who is Alan Shepard? One of the astronauts told Life magazine, “You might think you’d get to know someone well after working so closely with him for two years. Well, it’s not that way with Shepard. He’s always holding something back.”
For all his vexing complexity, however, Shepard was exactly the kind of man NASA wanted. At the height of the Cold War, the space agency sought nothing less than “real men . . . perfect physical and emotional and aesthetic specimens.”
And when it came time for NASA to choose between the top two astronauts—Shepard and John Glenn—I learned that Shepard was chosen for the first Mercury flight because, as one NASA official put it, “We wanted to put our best foot forward.”
In many ways, and despite his darker personality traits, Shepard was the best of the best. Here was a guy who had fought an evil empire in World War II; landed planes on aircraft carriers during storms and at night; bailed out of test jets ten miles above Earth; downed cocktails or swatted golf balls with celebrities; water-skied barefoot; raced Corvettes; slept with beautiful women; and became a millionaire, all the things boys and teens want to do when they become men. Shepard was a man’s man, and other astronauts through the 1960s strived to be just like him, even if they didn’t necessarily like him.
Indeed, Shepard worked hard at setting himself apart. He would attend casual backyard barbecues in a suit and tie and drove a flashy Corvette for the better part of 30 years. He befriended racecar drivers, comedians, pro golfers, and millionaires, collected celebrity friends such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, and Clint Eastwood. Then again, while he often acted the part of a self-sufficient loner with little need for others’ company, he was just as often a party boy who loved good pranks and nights of drinking with buddies. Shepard cherished good times and pursued them vigorously. Some guessed that his need for a good time was a necessary counterweight to his constant, annoying competitiveness. Al Neuharth, who founded USA Today , told me Shepard “wanted to win, whether it was pool or cards or whatever. He wanted to win, to be number one.”
My book began as a series of questions: How does a man reach the front lines of the Cold War? Where does an edgy, competitive explorer go after he’s already gone where few men have? How does someone reach the moon, and how does he survive after that?
In answering those questions, I feel reassured that Shepard’s life was worth pursuing. My assurance was affirmed when I shared a copy of my book with Homer Hickam ( Torpedo Junction and October Sky ), who told me, “Who woulda thunk Alan Shepard would be so interesting after all?” Hickam said I had “given Shepard’s unique humanity a chance to emerge from not only the legend that NASA built around him but the one he built around himself.” I hope others—especially Navy veterans—agree that Shepard lived a large, energetic, aggressive, and even compassionate life. It was a life that, before and after space, pulsed with mystery, romance, and adventure. Shepard was the military version of what Elvis was to music, what James Dean was to Hollywood, what Kerouac was to literature. Today’s man was once a boy who wanted to be Alan Shepard.
Shepard’s story is one of a life fully lived and, entwined through it is—somewhat surprisingly for a man so famous for philandering—a love story. His beautiful wife Louise might have told the story. But after 53 years of marriage, she followed him into oblivion, dying of a sudden, mysterious heart attack, five weeks after he did, on an airplane, 40,000 feet above Earth.
Shepard loved and doted on his wife and two daughters. Few colleagues knew Shepard also informally adopted a niece (the daughter of his wife’s dead sister) and treated her like one of his own. But his strong if imperfect 53-year marriage quietly survived while so many other astronaut marriages crumbled around him.
One family friend told me Louise grounded her husband: “She was the rock.” And astronaut Wally Schirra told me, “She’d bring Al down to Earth a lot.”
In the end, she was probably the only one who really knew the Icy Commander.
Mr. Thompson is the author of Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America’s First Spaceman . A former reporter for The Baltimore Sun , he is based currently in North Carolina.