Alan Shepard Interview (page: 4 / 4)
First American in Space
Mr. Faget, how did you feel about the moon landing, when the vehicles you helped design actually got to the moon?
Starting back from this soup that created the first living cell, all the way up to the human race. First you got out of the water, got off the land and started flying. Finally, we've gotten off the planet. What do you think about that? Evolution has carried the highest form of life on this planet off the planet, and that whole evolutionary process has contributed. There's an awful lot of technology we take for granted that's been created over the last centuries, millennia, etc., that went into that accomplishment. It gives you hope for the future.
Then it was your turn, Admiral Shepard. Ten years after your first space flight, you find yourself on the moon.
Alan Shepard: I finally found a gent who corrected my ear problem surgically, and after NASA looked at me for perhaps a year, they decided that I was well enough to fly again. At that point I had some influence in crew selection, so I was able to work out a deal where I could fly on the lunar mission.
What was it like to be up on the moon? You were 47 years old. Did anybody say you were too old to go to the moon?
Alan Shepard: Oh, yeah. We got all kinds of flak from the guys. In the first place, I hadn't flown anything since 1961, and here it was ten years later, and the two guys with me had not flown before at all, so they called us the three rookies. We had to put up with that. And then the fact that everybody said "That old man shouldn't be up there on the moon." As if it wasn't enough of a challenge as it was, but that was part of the make up of all those guys. They are still a pretty competitive group. So again, the gamut of emotions, the gamut of feelings, but instead of being 16 minutes in Freedom VII, it was stretched out to ten days in Apollo XIV. During the trans-lunar and the trans-earth phases there were almost three days when you really could relax. There were tasks of navigation and unstowing and getting ready and so on, but there was also, some chance to look around, and see what the earth looked like, and really get used to zero gravity. Very pleasant moments.
You mean you never just looked around and said, "Here I am! I am on the moon!"
Alan Shepard: I did, but I really didn't do that until we had landed and I was on the surface, and walked around a little bit, and then stopped and looked up.
We had a couple of cliff-hangers on Apollo XIV. In the first place, we tried to dock with the lunar module, and that didn't work, so it could have been the end of the deal, but we finally got that organized. And then, the actual landing on the surface. We were supposed to get an update from the radar, we couldn't go below 13,000 feet, and that came in only at the last minute. So there were a lot of little nervous things that kept you awake all the way down until you landed. But then you are there, and you say, "Well, we're not going to take off for a couple of days, so let's relax and enjoy it."
[ Key to Success ] Courage
I was going about the little chores when I came to a rest period and looked up at the earth. The first time really seeing it in the black sky, the blue planet all by itself up there. That was an emotional moment. Some of the emotion was a result of having successfully arrived, a little sense of relief, but I think all of us, in our own ways, have expressed the same kind of feeling.
Seeing the earth, even though it is four times as large as the moon, but still it looks fragile. Still, it looks small. You think it's pretty big when you're back there among your friends and it's 25,000 miles around, and so on. But from that distance you realize it is, in fact, fragile. It is, in fact, a small part only of our solar system, much less the rest of the universe.
[ Key to Success ] Vision
I think all of us have expressed that. Maybe if people had a chance to see this, they wouldn't be so parochial, they wouldn't be so interested in their own particular territories. That will come in time, I think. Perhaps we could put the Security Council on the space station, and let them try to see where their little bailiwick is. To me and, I think, to all of us, it was a realization that our world is finite, it is small, it is fragile, and we need to start thinking about how to take care of it.
What was it like finding your way around on the lunar surface?
Alan Shepard: We had a ball up there. Everything was essentially the way we had practiced for it. We laughed and giggled and bounced around. I think almost everybody did. But we couldn't use that fancy little car. We were assigned a landing area about a mile away from a fairly large crater, which had a 15-degree slope, as you approach the top of it. It was sort of like trying to climb a sand dune in the desert. You take one step and your foot slips back, so it really got to be physically difficult for us. Finally, we just picked up the golf cart and carried it up the hill, rather than try to drag it over the rocks. That was a little bit of a surprise. Also, we had difficulty defining the rim of the crater to which we were supposed to walk. Because of the shadows, it appeared in the photographs to be a very sharp rim, but as a matter of fact, there were millions and billions of years of meteorites. It was fairly well rounded. We couldn't actually recognize it. Although we were right there at the rim, and collected samples from the injected boulders, we didn't realize that we were specifically right there.
Outside of that, we accomplished everything, collected all the samples. We had landed closer to it than any of the other five landings. We brought back the oldest rocks. I was really very pleased. At the end of the second mission, I played with a little makeshift golf club that I had received clearance to play with. I whacked a couple of golf balls up there.
Why were you hitting golf balls on the moon?
Alan Shepard: All of us wanted to think of something which would demonstrate -- especially to young people -- the lack of atmosphere and the difference of the gravity. The gravity is only one sixth that of Earth, and here is a total vacuum up there. Some of the clever guys before us had dropped a little lead ball, and a feather, to watch them slowly proceed at exactly the same rate to the surface. It's the sort of demonstration that had been used before. Being a golfer, I thought if I could just get a club up there, and get it going through the ball at the same speed, that it would go six times as far as it would have gone here on earth. designed a club head to fit on the handle we used for scooping up dust samples. I cleared it with the powers that be, and practiced in a space suit before we went to be sure there were no safety implications. The deal I made with the boss was that if things were messed up on the surface, I wouldn't play with it, because we would be accused of being too frivolous. But, if things had gone well, which they did, then the last thing I was going to do, before climbing up the ladder to come home, was to whack these two golf balls. Which I did, and I folded up the collapsible golf club and brought it back with me. The balls are still up there. Perhaps the youngsters of today will go up and play golf with them some time, 25 or 30 years from now.
Was there ever a time when you thought any of this was not possible? Mercury, or going to the moon?
Alan Shepard: No. I think all of us had such confidence in the technology that it was not a question. It was just a question of scheduling and a question of the funds to do it. I think one has to have that kind of an attitude, particularly when you are involved in research and development. You've got to believe it's going to be done eventually.
How has it affected your life? You weren't motivated by wanting to become a hero or a celebrity, but you became one. How do you handle that kind of thing?
Alan Shepard: You're absolutely right. I didn't volunteer to become a hero. In the early days, none of us realized what the positive response would be to the of handful of us who were singled out because we were the first to fly, the first to orbit, the first to land on the moon. Becoming a public figure overnight was a little difficult at first. I hadn't really expected it: all of a sudden realizing that people wanted autographs, didn't always ask at the right time, they weren't always polite, and they sort of figured we were public property because they were taxpayers. We appreciated their contributions, but I had a little difficulty with that.
Then, one day I was looking at a film of President Kennedy giving me a medal in the Rose Garden. I made a few brief remarks afterward, and I said it was not because of my individual effort, but the efforts of the dedicated people that worked with us on the program over the years. I realized that I really meant it when I said that. If you really appreciate what these people have done, you will respond positively to whatever degree of attention you're getting. From there on out, it's been relatively easy for me to understand why it's happened, and to be positively responsive to it.
Of all the things you've done, what are you proudest of?
Alan Shepard: If it's one thing, obviously it had to have been being selected to make the first manned space flight for the United States. That was competition at its best, not because of the fame or the recognition that went with it, but because of the fact that America's best test pilots went through this selection process, down to seven guys, and of those seven, I was the first one to go. That always will be the most satisfying thing for me.
Why do you think it was Alan Shepard?
Alan Shepard: I don't know. And the chap who made the final decision, Bob Gilruth, who was the director of the manned spacecraft center in those days, has never told me. He just said, "You were the right guy at the right time." That's how it all happened.
So, if you work hard enough, and you are in the right place at the right time, you can be shot off into space.
Alan Shepard: Or do anything else you want to do. There's a message here for me still. Using the days at NASA as an example, we were not always successful. There were two really serious lapses of concentration. A little bit of overconfidence perhaps. A lack of attention to duty. Little insidious things that happened. You had this great team of dedicated, qualified people, but they get a little bit complacent, and boom! Pretty soon something goes wrong. That's always been a good lesson to me that you've got to do the very best you can all the time. Now, you can't always do that. But you can recognize when you're goofing off, and get back on track. It's a very insidious kind of thing, but if you look for the signals, they are there. If you are a little bit late for work, leave a little bit early. "I don't have to do that tonight, because I can do that tomorrow." These are the signs that I am talking about, and they eventually lead to bad decisions. They eventually lead to a lack of performance. If you really want to do something, you've got to keep analyzing yourself so that you don't fall into that little insidious trap, and you don't get complacent. Because there are a lot of people out there that are going to run right over you on the way to the same target.
If a young man or woman came to you for advice on his or her life and career, what it takes to achieve something, what would you say to them?
Alan Shepard: I would say that they have to know deep down inside that it's something that they really want to do, themselves. It's not to please mommy or daddy, not to please Uncle Harry because he did this, or daddy did that. It has to be because you know you are qualified to do it, and if you apply yourself, you can do it. And again, if there is going to be fame or fortune involved, you can't do it for those purposes. Because, if you do it for fame, if you do it for fortune, they are both very bad appetites, because you never get enough of fame, and you never get enough of fortune. But if you do it as an objective, and you reach a point where -- for the moment -- you are satisfied, that gives you the confidence to go on to the next objective. That's what I would say to young people.
Is there anything else you think is important to say?
Alan Shepard: Let me make a little pitch. It's been interesting over the years, in talking to the average layman about space. There is always the initial interest, and the excitement. So you go through how exciting it was, to them as well as to us. Then some more perceptive people say, "Really, what was the value of going to the moon. When you strip away all the excitement and glamour, how about the millions of dollars we spent sending you up there?" And I say, "Now wait a minute. You realize that I went to the moon and back, and I didn't leave a single dollar up there." And they say, "Where did all these millions of dollars go?" And I say, "Every single dollar that was spent on the space program, went into the pockets of the individuals who worked on it: the contractors, the subcontractors, the vendors. It went to feed their children, put clothes on their back, send them to school. They say, "Yeah, I guess that's right, but how about all this high tech stuff that you left up there?" And I say, "We had some pretty sophisticated materials up there, but you probably couldn't get five cents on the dollar for them today. However, the people who developed that are still here on the earth, and the research and development of techniques that they developed for that are here, and that's being used today to improve communications satellites, and so on." But let's take it one step further.
The one thing that we. in the United States today, still do better than any other country in the world, is to build a better mousetrap. Our level of technology is still better than the Russians by far, better than the Japanese, surprisingly enough. If we are going to be the leaders of the world, and we are going to worry about trade balance, if we are going to worry about military systems, or solving the problems of the environment, we are going to have to continue to spend money on research, medical research as well. We do that best, and I think it's important for youngsters who have a bent toward technology and science not to get sidetracked into high-paying jobs as lawyers and, brokers and so on. Those are important, but there is still a need for any youngster who has any scientific interest at all to continue the lead that we have on technology in the world today, if we are interested in the future of the United States.
What do you think, Mr. Faget? Will we continue to travel into space in the 21st century?
Maxime Faget: I think if we want to, we could go to Mars. I'm not sure we, as a country, want to that much. The whole social and civil structure of our nation may not have that much determination. It won't be inexpensive. I'll make a comment here which is off the subject we're talking about, but I think it's an important one to consider.
We've come to the point where we deplore anything that puts a human life at risk. And I don't think the human race can improve itself with that attitude. When I look back, all through history, people have always been willing to lay down their lives for achieving some goal. In the bigger picture, it's the race that is important, not the individual. This view of the value of human life has really changed from when I was a young man. I don't understand why, and I think it's bad. I don't know whether that's going to change or not. In this recent war, I certainly think it's great that we didn't lose very many lives, but then I see some people wringing their hands because the Iraqis lost a lot of lives. That's not our doing. That was their doing. Not that they weren't good human people, but they were going to die sometime, and we are all replaceable. The race is more important than the individual. Because we are a social animal, and that's the nature of social animals. I don't know if you wanted to hear that philosophy or not.
Admiral Shepard, how about your family? Given the amount of dedication and time and sacrifice required, required to be an astronaut, was it possible to have a personal life? How did you balance your career, and your personal life?
Alan Shepard: My wife and I have always tried to explain to the girls -- even when I had to go off on nine-month cruises in the Mediterranean or in the Pacific -- why I was doing it, and what it was all about, that I felt that I could contribute to the military. There is a favorite family story that we still laugh about. I had my wife and the three girls aboard ship one night, at dinner in the officer's mess. They saw everything: the white tablecloths, and the silver, and the stewards. I was on duty that night, so when they left, I stayed on board. And As they were riding back, one of the girls said, "Mommy, how come daddy is so rich and we are so poor?"
We always tried to share experiences with them. It was a little more difficult for them after the astronaut business, but they've responded well. All three are happily married, with their youngsters. And they're not just happy homemakers. They're all involved in little projects of their own, because they are challenged by wanting to help local charities, or wanting to start a business. I think they have turned out reasonably well.
Admiral Shepard, if there was one place in this world -- or in this universe -- that you haven't explored, what would that be?
Alan Shepard: I really hadn't thought too much about it. We have traveled a lot. We have seen the whole world from a distance. I have seen a lot of beautiful countries. I have seen great artifacts: the pyramids, the Great Wall. I suppose maybe the top of Mt. Everest might be a neat place to go sometime, if I didn't have to climb up there! If I could just all of a sudden be put on the top of Mt. Everest, that would be pretty exciting.
A lot of people would say you've already outdone Mt. Everest. Thank you, Admiral Shepard.
Alan Shepard Interview, Page:
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This page last revised on Aug 02, 2010 13:15 EDT