Academy of Achievement Logo

Alan Shepard

Interview: Alan Shepard
First American in Space

February 1, 1991
Houston, Texas

Back to Alan Shepard Interview

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.

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.

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."

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.

So Mr. Faget, when the Russians launched Sputnik, what impact, what affect did that have on you and the other advanced aviation engineers?

Maxime Faget: Well, when the Sputnik went up, there were a lot of us, not all of us, but a lot of us, maybe about 20 or 30%, who said, "Boy, the rules have all changed. No one wants to fly faster. What you want to do now is to go to orbital velocity. Now you can go forever at orbital velocity, why fool around in the atmosphere?" And of course, that was a big jerk in people's thinking, and a lot of them were not ready to accept it. And those who were thinking about it were still thinking in terms of winged vehicles to go that fast. There were some of them who were thinking in terms of lifting bodies, which we are still fooling with, to go that fast.

There was one fellow at the Ames Research Center, a very prominent man named Harley Allen, who had postulated a very blunt design, for a ballistic missile, as a better way to enter the atmosphere, rather than a sharp-nosed thing. He said, "What's wrong with a blunt body?" I took that idea, and I said, "Yeah, what is wrong with a blunt body?" And I immediately knew I could design a real good capsule based on the blunt body approach. So I spent some time doing that, right at that point.

Was that the breakthrough idea?

Maxime Faget: To me it was.

It was so obvious. But believe me, this wasn't an acceptable solution to most of my colleagues. It was anathema. It was a break with the faith. I was a pariah, you know, as far as they were concerned. But it was the right way to do it. Primarily because anything else but a blunt body -- and a very efficient blunt body from the standpoint of heat -- wouldn't be light enough to be able to get into orbit using an Atlas rocket. I realized that.

I just had to pick the shape that would have the least amount of weight devoted to heat protection. And we had data on all sorts of shapes and it was pretty easy to come up with the one that would give us the lowest amount of heating. It had to be almost as blunt as you could make it.

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
The Mercury vehicle has a small amount of curvature on the front end. The heating is slightly less on that slightly curved front end than on a flat one. Just a little bit, but that's the ideal shape, so that was the one we used. It wasn't any great big scientific breakthrough to find that thing. The data was already existing. All you had to do was get it out of the data files, and go ahead with it.

What other obstacles have you had to overcome to achieve the things that you have?

Maxime Faget: The most difficult thing that I've had to contend with is convincing people -- colleagues or whoever they might be -- that we ought to do something different than the tried and true, to depart from the way we've been doing things. Innovations have to be made, and it's difficult sometimes to sell your ideas. There's always a competition of ideas, and the majority always wants to stay with the present approach.

There was a great deal of difficulty in convincing people that we didn't need wings to fly that fast and that we didn't want streamlined, we wanted blunt. Aeroengineers don't like blunt things, they like streamlined things. You know: "Blunt is beautiful, streamlined is bad."

That's not what they wanted to hear. That was a problem that we dealt with, but the nice thing about the blunt body was that it was not only the lightest thing, it was the simplest thing. Therefore the program could move rapidly. We already had the rockets being developed, so we could move very rapidly on the Mercury vehicle.

The Mercury capsules were so tiny. How did you determine the size of the vehicle?

Maxime Faget: Well, you understand right off, we are trying to keep the thing down to 2,000 pounds, and it had to be pretty small. It had to be a tight thing and, well, you understand I'm small. I'm short, compact, light. So, when I got to designing the damn thing, and putting in my inputs, I had absolutely no motivation to make it very big! My secret hope was that maybe some way or the other I would be able to fly on the thing.

Admiral Shepard, the expression "The Right Stuff" has become part of our vocabulary. Maybe you and the others in the program have come to hate it, but what is the right stuff? What does it take to be an astronaut, to do what you've done?

Alan Shepard: I think first of all you have to be there for the right reason. You have to be there not for the fame and glory and recognition and being a page in a history book, but you have to be there because you believe your talent and ability can be applied effectively to operation of the spacecraft. Whether you are an astronomer or a life scientist, geophysicist, or a pilot, you've got to be there because you believe you are good in your field, and you can contribute, not because you are going to get a lot of fame or whatever when you get back. So that motive has to be there to start with.

And you have to be a fairly dedicated, objective individual, recognize that it is going to be dangerous, and you are going to spend your time practicing what to do if things go wrong.

You take that initial attitude of believing you can do it, and you build a lot of confidence, because -- particularly in the simulators -- if you respond to two or three horrible emergencies during the course of a morning, and do that day in and day out for weeks and months, it's a tremendous confidence-builder. Some people could probably say it's brainwashing in its best form. But there is a total confidence at the time of launch, because of the initial attitude, and because of the training philosophies -- coping with contingencies.

What kinds of things were the seven of you subjected to in the training process? What were they looking for? What were they doing to you?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: All of us trained for physiological response. We wanted to be in great shape, we wanted to be able to cope with zero gravity, we wanted to be able to cope with accelerations and decelerations and so on. So all of us trained so that we were probably in the best physical condition we had ever been in up until that point. Beyond that, in the early days we all were given certain areas of responsibility. For example, because of my naval background, I was assigned to be responsive to the engineers on recovery in the water. Contingencies, what do you do if the thing sinks? That sort of stuff. Others were involved in the tracking system. Others were involved in propulsion systems of the rocket as a specialty area. We worked with the engineers in the design and construction and testing phases in those various areas, then we would get back together at the end of the week and brief each other as to what had gone on. So even though we were there competing with each other for the first ride, we were still acting as a team, and helping each other in those days.

Mr. Faget, can you remember Alan Shepard in those days? Why was he chosen to go first?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Maxime Faget: Dr. Gilruth and Charlie Donovan picked the astronauts, and decided who would go first. I knew Shepard was an excellent astronaut, and I was very pleased to have him go, but I would have been pleased with any of them. They all were pretty cocky, very confident. When the astronauts came on, we brought them right into the program. When we had a failure in one of our tests, they'd participate in all of our design reviews, all of our troubleshooting reviews. There were no secrets from them. As a matter of fact, they initiated some design changes, which we did in order to satisfy some of their concerns.

When we started off, we thought the Atlas could put about 2,000 pounds into orbit. So our design weight at the initiation of the program was 2,000 pounds. That was our goal. We had to build it at 2,000 pounds, and it was very challenging. I don't know if you've ever seen the actual article, but it's tiny. You can barely squeeze a man into it. It had the hold five pounds of pressure, and we filled it full of oxygen, because we did not want to put that extra structural weight which would take a full atmospheric pressure. The heaviest thing in a pressure vehicle are windows. So we had two small windows in the original design. They were round like portholes. My submarine experience had something to do with this. On a submarine you don't have any windows, you have a periscope. We gave them a set of optics that were similar to a periscope, down on the control panel, that they could look out and navigate by. They could look into and get a moving picture of the earth below them as they orbited.

Along side of that we had a map of the earth, and a program device that would scroll that map through a viewing area, so that they would be able to compare where they were with that moving map, to make sure that they were on track, or to give them reassurance that the capsule was on track. And we thought that was -- or at least I thought -- that was pretty good. They could look out through these little port holes, you know. That was not acceptable. They didn't think that was good at all.

So one of the big design changes was to put a window in the front here, which added some weight. By the time we actually flew, instead of weighing 2,000 pounds, it weighed about 2,700 pounds. Fortunately, as the Atlas was developed, we improved its performance, so it didn't have any trouble carrying the full weight. I think a great number of changes to the Mercury capsule would not have happened if the Atlas had not been improved. Originally we didn't have a fast-opening hatch. You had to push the parachutes out of the way and go out the top. We added an internal parachute as well as the two parachutes on the outside. The astronauts were involved in the program decisions from the time they came on board. I think it was the right way to do it.

Admiral Shepard, you were given a parachute to take along on that ride, weren't you? Why did you have a personal parachute in addition to the escape tower rocket?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: It was sort of a last-minute decision. There was some concern that the escape tower might not separate from the top of the space craft. You wouldn't be able to get the parachutes out if the escape tower was still on. So we carried a little chest pack. We practiced, and there was enough time to hook the chest pack on, undo the straps, open the door, jump out, and come down in a personal parachute. It was just a tertiary means of getting out.

It sounds to me like there wasn't any room for panic in this business.

Alan Shepard: That's right. People have said over the years, "Boy, you really must have been scared." Fortunately, I wasn't scared. Nervous, but not frightened to death. Because if you have a person there who is petrified, he is not going to be any good as pilot, as a backup, as an observer, or whatever his function is going to be. You have to be trained to the point where you absolutely are not panicked.

NASA had a few mishaps with their first test firings, didn't they? You couldn't have been 100% sure that this Mercury space craft was going to work when you stepped into that day.

Alan Shepard: That's very true.

I think all of us certainly believed the statistics which said that probably 88% chance of mission success and maybe 96% chance of survival. And we were willing to take those odds. But we wanted to be sure that if there were any failures in the machine that the man was going to be there to take over. And to correct it. And I think that still is true of this business -- which is basically research and development -- that you probably spend more time in planning and training and designing for things to go wrong, and how you cope with them, than you do for things to go right.

Admiral Shepard, on the morning you got into Freedom VII, took off, and became the first American in space, what were you experiencing, what were you feeling?

Alan Shepard: I think I ran the whole gamut of emotions. I woke up an hour before I was supposed to, and started going over the mental checklist: where do I go from here, what do I do? I don't remember eating anything at all, just going through the physical, getting into the suit. We practiced that so much, it was all rote.

The excitement really didn't start to build until the trailer -- which was carrying me, with a space suit with ventilation and all that sort of stuff -- pulled up to the launch pad. I walked out, and looked at that huge rocket, the Redstone rocket, for the first time. Of course it's not huge by today's standards, but it seemed pretty big then. And I thought, well now, there is that little rascal, and I'm going to get up on top and fly that thing. And you know, pilots always go out to the airplanes and kick the tires before they fly. Nobody would let me get near the rocket to kick the fins, but I kind of walked around and thought, well, I'll take a good look at it, because I'll never see that part of the machine again. And then the excitement started building, I think, at that point.

After I was strapped in and ready to go, we had to hold, because we had to change a generator in the Redstone rocket.

I had a chance to sit back and relax a little bit, and again go through the process of "what do I do" for the first few minutes and first few seconds of the flight. And so I was really pretty relaxed by the time that lift-off finally occurred. I guess my pulse really wasn't much over about 110 or so. I've forgotten exactly what it was, but everybody thought I was a pretty cool customer.

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
At that point, you are basically thinking about, "What do I do if this goes wrong? What do I do if that goes wrong?" You know what critical things have to happen in sequence. The fact that you are accelerating with the thrust of the rocket is good, it's very positive. You know that the rocket is doing its job and it's doing it correctly. You're just going over a checklist of one thing after the other. You've done it in the simulator so many times, you don't have a real sense of being excited when the flight is going on. You're excited before, but as soon as the liftoff occurs, you are busy doing what you have to do.

I remember just reaching the apex of the trajectory, when I was going to be in the middle of the weightlessness, and I was looking at the periscope, and all of a sudden I said, "You know, somebody is going to ask me how it feels to be weightless, so you better pay attention to how it feels to be weightless." So I was going through the motions of flying, but at the same time trying to assess physiologically how I felt. Was I dizzy, or confused? And so on. And then I thought, "Well, somebody is going to ask me how the earth looks." And so I looked down through the periscope -- which was all that we had at that point -- and made a few remarks, I think, on the tape, or perhaps on the radio.

Then I had to get ready for reentry, so enough of that subjective thinking and back to the objectivity required to get this baby oriented to come back in. So you see, you could really go through a whole gamut of feelings, of nervousness and elation. Obviously at that point I was delighted. The rocket had worked perfectly, and all I had to do was survive the reentry forces. You do it all, in a flight like that, in a rather short period of time, just 16 minutes as a matter of fact.

You talked at the time about this smooth easy ride. But Michael Collins said it got so bad at times that he couldn't read the instruments. What kind of a ride was it?

Alan Shepard: The Redstone was a relatively smooth rocket. There was a little buffeting when it went from subsonic to supersonic speed, but other than that it was a pretty smooth rocket. What Mike is talking about is what all of us experienced who flew the Saturn V, which was really a heck of a lot more powerful: seven and a half million pounds, as opposed to some 75 thousand pounds in the Redstone. There was a lot of vibration in the Saturn V.

How did that Mercury flight compare with flying an airplane?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: It was similar only to the degree that we were able to design into the system that a certain movement of the stick was going to give you some kind of a familiar response in the instruments. Otherwise it didn't fly like an airplane. It didn't have any kind of a feedback of the faster you went the more difficult it was to move the stick, or that sort of thing. The pilot looked at his cues of attitude and speed and orientation and so on and responded as he would from the same cues in an airplane, but there was no way it flew the same. The simulators had showed us that. We just had to forget about wing tips and looking out through the nose of the airplane, and that sort of thing. It just wasn't like that.

What were you thinking when they finally got you back to the carrier, and the world was waiting for you?

Alan Shepard: Of course I was delighted the flight was over, but I still had to worry about cleaning up inside the cabin, I had to worry about the hatch, how to get in the sling, and so on.

In the helicopter, flying back to the carrier, and seeing thousands of sailors on the deck of the carrier, being a Navy pilot, having made hundreds of carrier landings already, it was sort of like coming home. Except that there they were cheering for me. And that was probably the first moment of the flight when I felt the emotion of success -- perhaps pride -- in what I had done. And that was probably the first emotional moment in that whole flight.

Clearly one wasn't enough. Did you know then that you wanted to do it again?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: Oh, absolutely. I was delighted when I was assigned command of the first Gemini flight with Tom Stafford as my co-pilot, but it was shortly after that I developed a disorientation problem in my ear, and NASA grounded me. I was grounded for almost six years.

How did you feel about that?

Alan Shepard: I didn't like it at all. This problem is called Meniere's Disease It causes dizziness, nausea, lack of balance and so on. The prediction was that in some cases it was correctable. I said, "In my case it is going to be correctable." A NASA guy said "We like you Shepard, you can be in charge of all the astronauts. You can't fly obviously, but you can fly with somebody else." Whenever I flew, I always had to have somebody in the back seat of the airplane. So I was in administrative charge of the astronaut group, their training and so on. I could set them down, pat them on the head, and watch them fly. That was a little tough.

I understand you met your old hero Charles Lindbergh at the time of the first moon landing. Is that so?

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: I had the opportunity to be with him on several occasions before he died. A couple of times at the White House, at state dinner type functions, and then perhaps the most memorable visit with him was really spontaneous. It was prior to the launch of Apollo XI, the first lunar landing. I was there with my family, in the VIP section. I was standing off by myself, just sort of reflecting on what was happening, and this gentleman came up in rough clothes, with a sailor hat turned upside down, and introduced himself. Of course, I knew right away who he was. We had about 30 minutes of recollecting what he had done and what that had meant to early aviation.

What did he tell you?

Alan Shepard: We talked in terms of his pioneering efforts. Nowadays we call it research, pushing out the frontiers. We were recognizing what the contributions of those early days of aviation -- and, like with me, the early days of space -- meant to the general public. These innovative new airplanes and innovative new space craft, and the science that is developed from that filtered into everyday life. It was about at that point he became interested in the interaction between technology and the environment. That was the thrust of the later years of his life. We talked about that a little bit too. It was a really a very exciting thing for me to be with him, one on one like that, talking about our favorite subjects. Fortunately my girls were there and they had a chance to meet him also. So it was a very memorable day for us, as well as for Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins.

Did you share any philosophical thoughts? You were one pioneer talking to another about that kind of adventure, that going off into the unknown, that making of history.

Alan Shepard: No. Except in moments like this -- when it's obvious in retrospect -- I have never really felt that I made some historical contributions.

During the actual process of flying spacecraft, or flying the Spirit of St. Louis, one doesn't think of one's self as being a hero or a historical figure. One does it because the challenge is there and one feels reasonably qualified to accomplish it. And it's later on I suppose, perhaps at the suggestion of other people, that you say, "Well yes, maybe." I must admit, maybe I am a piece of history after all.

But even at the time, you must give some thought to what you are about to do when you stepped into that space craft.

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
Alan Shepard: Absolutely. But not from the standpoint of the contribution to history, from the standpoint of an individual response to a challenge which was, in our case, a highly technical challenge. In the early days particularly, we didn't envision ourselves receiving the attention and publicity which we did, because there were a lot of skeptics in the early days of the space business. Half the people thought it was exciting and rather positive, and the other half thought we were crazy to be doing that sort of thing. There is probably a lesson there. If a person shows up to fly an airplane, or a spacecraft, or to perform some surgery, or to be the greatest lawyer in a certain field, then he has to be there because it's a challenge to him personally. He knows he can do a good job. He can't be thinking of whether he is going to be a hero or whether he is going to be a bum as a result of what he is doing. In other words, a person -- to be successful -- has to be there because he knows he is equipped to do a job, he is challenged by the job, and that's really the reason why he is there.

Mr. Faget, how did you feel about the moon landing, when the vehicles you helped design actually got to the moon?

Maxime Faget: The landing on the moon, sure, it was a personal triumph for the team of people that did it and I was on that team. I take a great deal of pride in that. It was a triumph for our country, because our country -- and I think our country was the only one at that time -- had both the resources and the technology to successfully prosecute that program. More than that, it was a triumph for the human race, if you stop to think about it.

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.

The deal I tried to cut with NASA was to give me command of Apollo XIII. And they said "Oh no. We can't do that, you are too much of a political problem." I said, "Well now, I've been training along with all these other guys, and I'm ready to go." And they said, "Well, we know that, but the public doesn't know that. So we will make a deal with you. We will let you command Apollo XIV if you will give us another crew for Apollo XIII." So Slayton and I gave them another crew. And of course XIII was the one that had all the problems on the way up. A big explosion. You remember, the cliffhanger coming back. So apparently, I was getting some help from outside sources.

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 Interview Photo
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."

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.

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 Interview Photo
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 Interview Photo
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 Interview Photo
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.

Alan Shepard Interview Photo
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 Interview Photo
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 Interview Photo
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.

During my lifetime the value placed on a human life has greatly increased. That doesn't mean that I haven't got a great deal of, my personal values don't value human life. But there are a lot of people in the world, and they are replaceable, you know. And the whole idea of being willing to risk one's life for achievement -- I say that's an honorable attitude.

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 Interview Photo
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.




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