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If you like Admiral Alan Shepard's story, you might also like:
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Daniel Goldin,
Paul MacCready,
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Chuck Yeager

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Alan Shepard in the Achievement Curriculum section:
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Alan Shepard
Alan Shepard
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Alan Shepard Interview

First American in Space

February 1, 1991
Houston, Texas

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  Alan Shepard

We're talking with two of the pioneers of space travel. Alan Shepard piloted America's first manned space mission, on May 5, 1961. Maxime Faget designed Freedom 7, the Mercury space capsule that Alan Shepard rode into space.

Admiral Shepard, when did you first become interested in aviation? When was your first plane ride?

Alan Shepard: The first plane ride was in a homemade glider my buddy and I built. Unfortunately we didn't get more than four feet off the ground, because it crashed. But the first legitimate airplane ride was when I was working at the local airport. And as a reward, partial reward for my activities, was given a ride as a passenger. And after two or three of those, the same pilot, he gave me a chance to play with the controls. And that's when it really all started.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What inspired this interest in planes? Who were your heroes?

Alan Shepard: In those days, talking in terms of a hero -- it had to be Charles Lindbergh. I was very young when he flew across the Atlantic, and very impressed.

I think my interest in aviation goes back to grade school, nine, ten, early teens. When Lindbergh made his flight. He was the big hero. I started building model airplanes. Later, in the early teens, I used to ride my bike every Saturday morning to the nearest airport, ten miles away, push airplanes in and out of the hangars, and clean up the hangars. Get a free ride once and a while. Get to hold the stick once in a while. And that's when my interest in aviation really started.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
At that particular point, there were really no aviation schools, as they have nowadays. There was not a lot of commercial aviation. We also knew it would be difficult, because of the financial condition of the family, for me to go to college. My dad was talking to a friend of his, who was a Naval Academy graduate, about my future and my interest in aviation. The chap said, "Little Alan is a fairly bright guy, and he could probably pass the entrance exams at the Naval Academy if he studied a little bit." The Navy was just starting their air arm. "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." Well, the chap was right. I guess I did apply myself properly. I passed the entrance exams, got the appointment, and that's how it all started.

What were you like as a kid growing up?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: I thought I was pretty normal, I did chores around the farm, had my own newspaper route to make money to buy a bicycle. Of course, in our grade school, in those days, there were no organized sports at all. We just went out and ran around the school yard for recess. I always felt I was pretty normal. I did what I had to do around home, and did what I had to do in school.

It's a long, long way from a one-room country school house in New Hampshire to the moon. Is that a journey you ever thought you'd make?

Alan Shepard: No, I didn't. Certainly when I was in the one-room country school, my ambition was just to get through with a creditable performance. Even in those days, a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher for six grades was unusual. Of course, I came from a rural community, and that was the school we had. I think it was beneficial to me. No one grade was reciting continuously, so I think I learned more in the first grade about the second grade, and consequently I only spent five years there. I'd like to say I was smart enough to finish six grades in five years, but I think perhaps the teacher was just glad to get rid of me.

What kind of a student were you?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: Pretty good, I think. I didn't mind studying. Obviously math and the physical science subjects interested me more than some of the more artistic subjects, but I think I was a pretty good student. Obviously the teacher thought so.

What teacher stands out in your mind, specifically, that might have influenced you?

Alan Shepard: It would have to be that one lady teacher in grade school. All six grades, one room, 25 students. She was about nine feet tall as I recall and a very tough disciplinarian. Always had the ruler ready to whack the knuckles if somebody got out of hand. She ran a very well-disciplined group. I think most of the youngsters responded to that. There were one or two that couldn't handle it and obviously they dropped by the wayside. But that still sticks out in my mind. That's the lady that taught me how to study, and really provided that kind of discipline, which is essentially still with me.

Was there anything in your home life or your upbringing or your youth to indicate that you would some day be the first American in space?

Alan Shepard: No, I don't really think so. I think certainly some of the characteristics which were helpful to me in the aviation business and the astronaut business were developed in those days. First of all, the home life. I came from a family of hard workers. Achievers -- certainly to some degree -- in that small pond. And then the teacher, who was bigger than life itself. I think the sense of family and family achievement, plus the discipline which I received there from that one-room school were really very helpful in what I did later on.

What about you, Mr. Faget? When you were a young person, starting out, were there teachers that influenced you or inspired you or motivated you?

Maxime Faget: I think it was in the seventh grade. At that time seventh grade was still in elementary school, and we had a math teacher that was teaching us geometry. Her name was Mrs. Simpson, and she was a great big lady. We used to call her Mississippi, because she was so wide. But she was a good, good teacher. I remember, that was my first exposure to geometry. And I never got turned on before.

Up until that time, everything I learned in school was just a pain. I didn't like it at all. But all of a sudden, I could understand geometry. And I really thought that was great stuff. So, I don't know whether it was the subject or the way she taught, but it was fun. She really made it fun. Maybe if she hadn't made it fun, I wouldn't be where I am.

Mr. Faget, you started out beneath the sea as a submarine officer, and ended up working with space travel. Is there a connection?

Maxime Faget: As a matter of fact, both submarines and airplanes really were kind of fun to me when I was a young boy. I made model airplanes, and I also made model submarines, with rubber bands on them. And my brother and I used to work the diving planes, and you wind the thing all up, and it disappeared under the swimming pool, and when it finished, it would float back up to the top. So, things that move, things that went places -- exotic places particularly -- were just kind of fun.

Admiral Shepard, lots of navy pilots didn't take things as far as you did. What was the challenge to you personally? Why did you become a test pilot and an astronaut?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: Obviously I was challenged by becoming a Naval aviator, by landing aboard aircraft carriers and so on. But in those days I figured I was just one of those guys that was doing his job. Maybe I could roll the airplane a little better than the next guy. But when I was selected, after my very first tour of squadron duty, to become one of the youngest candidates for the test pilot school, I began to realize, maybe you are a little bit better. You may not have any extra talent, but maybe you are just paying more attention to what you are doing. I think that's when I realized I was the sort of person that was objective enough and dedicated enough to do a good job. Then there was the challenge to keep doing better and better, to fly the best test flight that anybody had ever flown. That led to my being recognized as one of the more experienced test pilots, and that led to the astronaut business.

That brings us back to you, Mr. Faget. You remember that moment in October 1957, when the only thing people could talk about was Sputnik. Was there a feeling that we were behind? Was there a need to compete with the Russians?

Maxime Faget: Was there ever!

The leadership were greatly concerned that we would be perceived as being behind. And that was not acceptable to be perceived as being behind. I think the technical people, you know, the ones that were really doing things, never thought we were behind, but the perception of being behind was a great concern to our national image as being the foremost country in the world. We were the leaders in aviation, and so forth and so on. So we had to compete, there was just no doubt about it.

The Russians made it very clear they were working toward manned space flight, because the second time they flew, they flew a dog. It was pretty clear they were planning to put someone up in space. So we had to get on with it.

Admiral Shepard, when NASA sent out the letters, looking for volunteers for the space program, what was your reaction, having heard about that?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: As a matter of fact, at the same time the invitations to volunteer were sent out, there was an article in the New York Times that said 110 top military test pilots would be chosen by NASA to become space pioneers. I read the article on a Friday afternoon and thought, I fulfill all these qualifications, I wonder where my invitation is? It was a rather miserable weekend of saying, gosh, I wonder why they didn't choose me? I found out first thing Monday morning that the mail had been misplaced in the Admiral's staff where I was stationed at the time. The telegram was delivered to me Monday morning.

So everything turned out fine, and we were given the opportunity to go to Washington and be briefed on the project of man in space, and given the opportunity to choose whether we wanted to get involved or not. Some of the chaps had the same qualifications but were a little more mature and were thinking more of their careers in the Navy or the Air Force. There were several who chose not to get involved, not because of fear of failure, but rather because it was a career deviation.

When I was finally selected, made the finals, one of seven, NASA folks said, "Well now you'd better call your parents and let them know what you've been doing, because your name is going to be in the paper tomorrow." So I called, and mother was delighted. But my father took the attitude, "Well, what is this you're going to do, son?" Because he could see a deviation in the military career, in which I had been relatively successful up until that point. And even at that age -- gosh, I was what? 35 years old then, give or take. And when your old man says, "You're gonna do what, son?" there is a little pause of reflection. Fortunately, in my case, he lived long enough to see me go to the moon and back. And one evening, we'd had dinner, the ladies had retired, and we were having a drink in front of the fire, and he said, "You remember when I said 'What are you going to do, son?'" I said, "Yes sir, I certainly do." And he said, "Well I was wrong."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

What did your wife say? What was her reaction?

Alan Shepard: I think she was all for it. You know, being a test pilot isn't always the healthiest business in the world. I had been involved in testing off and on for six or seven years, flying stranger airplanes higher and faster than we could talk about, and having done it reasonably successfully. They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one. I think she knew immediately that I would volunteer for it.

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This page last revised on Aug 02, 2010 13:15 EDT