The late Alan Shepard of Derry became the fifth person to walk on the moon and at 47 the oldest ever, but his closest observers maintain this fierce competitor had dreamed of being the first.
As one of the original Mercury Seven depicted in the novel and film, “The Right Stuff,” Shepard became the first American to travel in space.
Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat Shepard to the punch by three weeks in 1961 to become the first human to reach for the stars. In a further embarrassment, the Russian orbited the entire Earth while Shepard did not.
The honor of being the first to walk on the moon 50 years ago this coming weekend fell to Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin while command module pilot Michael Collins orbited around the moon waiting to pick up the lunar module for the return trip back to Earth.
Devastating health issue
It was personal health that pushed Shepard to the back of the line for moonwalkers.
In 1963, Shepard developed a vexing and devastating ailment known as Ménière’s disease, which causes nausea, dizziness and ringing in the ears.
“People don’t tend to remember that the always ambitious and strong-willed Shepard was really put on the shelf for several years with that condition,” said Jeanne T. Gerulskis, executive director of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord.
“He refused to let them completely silence him though,” Gerulskis said.
Indeed, except for his stint as the commander of the 1971 Apollo 14 voyage to the moon, from 1963 until his retirement in 1974, Shepard had the role of chief of the astronauts, the administrator in charge of all training programs to ensure the flight readiness of pilots.
This person had immense power in determining the selection of Apollo crews, and this work ended up playing a signature role in getting Shepard back in line to go to the moon.
In 1969, Shepard secretly checked himself into a Los Angeles hotel and soon after got a risky operation to correct his inner-ear condition.
After a year of cajoling, Shepard convinced NASA administrators to assign him to a future lunar mission with the help of Deke Slayton, another of the original Mercury Seven, who served as chief of astronauts while Shepard was training for Apollo 14.
Cutting the moonwalk line
Nearly 20 years after retiring, Shepard candidly talked in a BBC interview in 1991 about the resentment others felt about him trying to cut back into the line of astronauts.
“We got all kinds of flak from the guys. In the first place, I hadn’t flown anything since 1961, and here it was 10 years later, and the two guys with me had not flown before at all, so they called us the three rookies,” Shepard said.
“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.”
Shepard died of complications from leukemia in 1998 at age 74.
Andrew Jordan, a research scientist for the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, said his study of the Apollo program revealed a strong camaraderie among all the astronauts, from those at command central in Houston or in the spaceship.
Shepard is seen in many archival photographs and videos of the Apollo 11 events advising his colleagues on the ground and communicating by radio with the three astronauts headed to the moon.
“It’s clear they had this incredible team concept, all working together to advance the goal,” Jordan said.
Apollo 11’s Collins later wrote about it in his 1973 bestseller titled “Carrying The Fire.”
“He said by the time he had finished working on another Apollo mission at Houston, he had tics in both eyes from spending so many hours poring over computer screens,” Jordan said.
UNH space institute director Harlan Spence said he didn’t get to know Shepard but was friendly with Harrison Schmitt, who as part of Apollo 17 became the last man to walk on the moon.
“They are all pretty impressive people; America is so fortunate they decided to dedicate, and literally risk their lives, to make a moon landing and what followed a reality,” Spence said.
Gerulskis got to meet the fourth person to walk on the moon, Alan Bean, who was on the Apollo 12 team. He visited the Concord planetarium several years ago.
“He said things he didn’t expect to realize was how going to the moon you missed the little things on Earth you took for granted, the colors, the smells. He said the whole experience opened up his eyes to what was so delightful about life itself, which strikes me as pretty profound for someone who went so far,” Gerulskis said.
Spence recalled it was that majestic first voyage to the moon that sold him on a career in astronomy and the study of space.
“I would have to thank my dad and my family quite a bit. I was 8 or so, and we were living outside of Boston in Reading, Mass. We drove down to Cape Canaveral in our 1965 Chevy wagon and watched the launch and then high-tailed it back to Reading to watch the landing,” Spence said.
“It was an amazing experience being there in Titusville (Fla.) across the river from the launchpad. When that Saturn 5 rocket lit up and took off, it just took my breath away. You could just feel really the massive energy; I was hooked.”
UNH part of new space mission
Now, Spence and Jordan are engaged in the cutting-edge research designed to prepare NASA and private companies to return men and women to space.
Spence invented a pivotal piece of equipment known as CRaTER, which for the past decade has circled the moon on what’s called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). CRaTER stands for Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation and has provided critical data on radiation levels and what impact long-term stays could have on humans.
“We are enabling the next return to the moon, and for my career and how I got interested back during Apollo 11, it’s just a cool bookend,” said Spence.
“Being able to somehow contribute to the next generation of moon travel is just really cool; it fires the jets.”
Jordan explained that CRaTER is the size of a shoebox perched on the LRO, which is the size of a phone booth. The CRaTER has built-in detectors made of plastic that have all the material qualities of human tissue so they can study how the radiation affects the equivalent of a person on board.
In 2014, the group produced ground-breaking analysis that concluded a less active or “quieter” sun was producing even more dangerous radiation levels that future space travelers need to prepare for.
About that golf shot ...
The project has produced the best-ever images of the moon’s surface to reveal the precise spots of all the lunar landings that are still visible, the path of Shepard’s spacewalk and even the “tee box” from which Shepard launched those two, spontaneous golf-ball shots on the moon.
Those shots weren’t spontaneous for Shepard, who prior to the Apollo 14 flight, got a Houston golf pro to help him modify a 6-iron head of a Wilson golf club and attach it to the end of a versatile tool astronauts use to scoop soil and rocks from the moon’s surface.
They were the only two who were in on this caper as Shepard snuck the club and two balls into space with him, and at the end of his moonwalk, Shepard whipped out the club and took his swings.
“I shanked the first one; it rolled into a crater about 40 yards away,” Shepard told the U.S. Golf Association in 1971. “The second one, I kept my head down. I hit it flush and it went at least 200 yards.”
These pictures also revealed cave-like structures that could keep space travelers alive for longer stays.
“They are what are called lunar pits, and think of them like a skylight — a big sinkhole in a long tunnel underneath the surface of the moon and the lava is no longer in there,” Jordan said. “If astronauts went down there and into the tunnel, they would be shielded from a lot of that radiation; it would be a great place for them to be.”
As NASA prepares for the next planned trip to the moon in 2024, Spence believes support of the American public for the mission will grow.
“First, it was 50 years ago when we went the first time, and there are so many kids and even young adults with children who have never experienced it,” Spence said.
“It’s also new in this respect. Apollo was about being first to the moon. Now it’s different. This is about let’s go to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. It’s really about finding what a longer stay is like and how can we better prepare to go to a less habitable place like Mars that instead of three days away would be a six-month flight.
“Finally this isn’t about the U.S. government going to the moon. It’s about private industry and private citizens going there. I can see a time in the not-so-distant future when there are more private people who’ve gone to the moon than government astronauts have.”