Date:May 5, 2011

Title: Alan Shepard: Astronaut and Moonwalker

Podcaster: Nancy Atkinson for the NASA Lunar Science Institute, with Neal Thompson

Organization: NASA Lunar Science Institute

Links: NLSI, Neal Thompson’s website

Music: “Amelia” by Ben Bedford, from his “Land of the Shadows” CD. Used by permission.

Description: Today, May 5th 2011, is the 50th anniversary of the first American in Space. Alan Shepard’s fifteen minute suborbital flight began America’s human mission to space, and later Shepard went to the moon on Apollo 14. Today we talk with author Neal Thompson who has written the only biography of Shepard, called “Light This Candle: the Life and Times of Alan Shepard.”

Bio: The NLSI brings together leading lunar scientists from around the world to further NASA lunar science and exploration.

Listen to previous NLSI podcasts at:

Neal Thompson is a veteran journalist and author who writes primarily about adventurous men – athletes and explorers, astronauts and bootleggers, warriors and risk-takers. “My goal is to tell stories that capture the flaws and aspirations of those who strive to live large, especially those who overcome hurdles, hardships, and setbacks. By living risky lives and accomplishing great and lasting things, I believe such men achieve immortality,” Thompson says on his website:

Prior to becoming a full-time author and freelancer he spent 15 years as a newspaper reporter, serving time at the Baltimore Sun, St. Petersburg Times, Bergen Record, Roanoke Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Nancy Atkinson is a science journalist and is the Senior Editor for Universe Today.

Sponsor: This episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is sponsored in-kind by Stuart Lowe and the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network


Hi this is Nancy Atkinson for the NASA Lunar Science Institute. Today, May 5th 2011, is the 50th anniversary of the first American in Space. Alan Shepard’s fifteen minute suborbital flight began America’s human mission to space, and later Shepard went to the moon on Apollo 14. Today we are talking with author Neal Thompson who has written the only biography of Shepard, called “Light This Candle.”

Neal, Alan Shepard was the consummate a astronaut – a competitive risk taker, who loved fast cars and fast planes. Tell us about some of your favorite aspects of Alan Shepard.

Neal Thompson: I guess I was really intrigued when I started researching his life that, as you mentioned, no other biography had been written about him. It was sort of curious to me that the other Mercury 7 astronauts had either written their own books or had books written about them, and with Shepard I was fascinated that the guy that was selected to go first and later went to the Moon hadn’t told his own life story or no one had gotten close enough to tell it for him. And I really devoted myself, I spent a few years digging into the details of his life and found a much more compelling guy than I ever expected to find.
As you said, he was the consummate astronaut; he was the epitome of the image that NASA had hoped to portray when they selected the first astronauts. He was a aircraft carrier pilot, a test pilot, drove fast cars, smoked cigars, drank martinis—he was stylish and cool and cocky and all of those things. In a recent op-ed I described him as Don Draper in a spacesuit. He represented that “Mad Men” era – cool and suave and all that.

But I also knew that there had to be more to him than just that image. And I think it was an image that Shepard worked hard to portray, but also to protect. He wasn’t the most outgoing guy with the press and I felt like there had to be more to his story than what we had read up to that time or have read since. And as I said, I found a much more compelling guy than I expected to find. There were a lot of aspects to his personality that were complicated and compelling and contradictory. He was highly competitive, but he was also a softy underneath at times. You know, he was accused over the years of being a bit of a womanizer, and yet he was married to the same woman for 40-plus years and I think they were very devoted to each other. So there were a lot of complex aspects to his personality that were fun to explore.

Nancy: Right, and that kind of complicated and conflicted type of personality probably contributed to his success.

Neal: I think so. Particularly in the competitiveness that he showed. I think Shepard spent his whole life competing, whether it was in sports as a youth, or competing among other naval aviators when he was a carrier pilot and then it just sort of ramped up at each stage of his career, becoming a test pilot where he competed with some of the best aviators on the planet and then to be selected among this extremely elite group of Mercury 7 astronauts and then to compete against them for that first ride. His whole life was about competition.

But I think he thrived on that and it was fun to explore what that meant in the scope of the space program. I spent a little bit of time digging deeper into the competitive relationship between he and John Glenn, who early on were sort of pegged as being the two guys most likely to fly first. As you know, Shepard was picked first and Glenn was furious about that. I think it is sort of interesting that now, historically Glenn is more well known probably than Shepard, even though he was picked to fly, actually third among the first astronauts. But because he has the orbital flight, Glenn’s flight is historically viewed as the bigger accomplishment.
But the competitiveness drove Shepard throughout his career, and in particular it was something he relied on in the mid-sixties when he was grounded because of his medical condition.

Nancy: Right, but yet he persevered in order to get to the Moon.

Neal: Yes, and that was a fascinating aspect to me of Shepard’s story, to learn more about, number one, how debilitating this inner ear disorder was that he wrestled with. So after his Mercury 7 flight, he was selected to command the first Gemini flight and while training for that was felled by Ménière’s disease which causes vertigo and nausea and vomiting and it was pretty severe. I think at that point, Shepard just considered hanging it up and leaving the space program and perusing other things, like business or politics or something high profile. He could have done anything, there were many offers. But I was fascinated by his decision to stick with the program, to stay with NASA, to take on this lesser role as head of the astronaut office, which was his job during the mid-sixties. It had to be really demoralizing for him to be the first American in space and then be able to fly at all and to be stuck watching the other astronauts fly ahead of him. But it was always impressive to me that he did stick with it, he got his inner ear disorder cured, and fought his way back into the flight rotation and then was assigned to Apollo 14. So I think he was very satisfied and gratified to have been able to fight back from this huge setback and I think it says a lot about his character that he did so and managed to get himself assigned to Apollo 14 and fly that mission so successfully.

Nancy: What people might remember most about his trip to the Moon was how he hit golf balls on the Moon, but he not necessarily would have wanted to be remembered for that.

Neal: I think he viewed that as something that he wanted to do, maybe so that his flight could be remembered as being a little more unique than some of the others. I don’t think it was necessarily a scientific reason for doing it, but it was a little bit of flair and maybe a little bit of a sign of exuberance, punctuating his comeback and his successful flight, and he set things up so that he would only hit the golf balls at the end of the flight if everything went well, and I think it was kind of his exclamation point tacked on to the end of Apollo 14 to say, “I did it” and here’s something fun and extra.

Nancy: They did have a bit of a disappointment in one of their Moonwalks, they were hoping to reach a certain crater, Cone Crater, but they weren’t able to find it because it is so hard to find your bearings on the Moon. Do you think that was a big disappointment for Shepard?

Neal: I don’t think it was huge, but it was a disappointment. Going back to his competitive nature, it would have been the only time that a moonwalker would have achieved such a long and strenuous hike on the Moon. But it was the longest moonwalk, I think he was proud of that fact and I think he was also proud of the fact that he was the oldest moonwalker – he was 47 when he was aboard Apollo 14, and that always amazed me. I’m in my mid-40’s now and I think of Shepard training so vigorously through his mid-to-late 40’s, to be able to accomplish what he did on Apollo 14 is really impressive and I think it was satisfying for him. I think it was satisfying that he was the only Mercury astronaut to reach the Moon, which I think shows his commitment to NASA and the space program. He stayed with NASA for 15 years which is more than any of the other Mercury 7 and more than more than most astronauts lasted. I think he really believed in the mission and believed in what he was doing.

Nancy: Right. Well, I think you chose the perfect title for the book, “Light this Candle” which was his famous phrase for when he was sitting aboard the Mercury flight just wanting the engineers to “fix their little problem” and just let him go.

Neal: I think that sums up his character in many ways, the one particular quote. He was a very intense guy who just wanted to get the job done and liked to move forward and not look back, and I think that reflection of that intensity of his personality is nicely summed in those few words, “Light This Candle”.
Nancy: The book is titled “Light This Candle: The life and times of Alan Shepard” by Neal Thompson. Neal, thank you very much for being with us today.

Neal: Thanks, Nancy. Really enjoyed it.

End of podcast:

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