Alan B. Shepard First in space: Astronaut flew mission that gave Americans confidence in their science.

July 25, 1998

TO APPRECIATE the importance of Alan B. Shepard's space flight, you have to remember the times. It was May 5, 1961. This country was in the heat of the Cold War against the communist Soviet Union. Every schoolchild was drilled to prepare for a missile attack.

Three weeks earlier, a Russian rocket had propelled Yuri Gagarin into space, a not-so-subtle message that their advanced technology might be capable of shooting more powerful objects in the direction of the United States.

When Mr. Shepard's Mercury capsule splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean, his casual remark that, "Everything is A-OK," meant much more than that his mission was a success. A nation that had wondered whether it had the scientific talent to keep the Soviets at bay had its answer.

So impressed was President John F. Kennedy that within a month he announced the United States would put an astronaut on the moon before the decade ended. The subsequent Gemini and Apollo space programs produced technological and medical advancements far beyond their military benefits.

For that, the nation owes a debt of gratitude to Alan B. Shepard, the first American in space.

Mr. Shepard died Tuesday. He was 74. In 1971, after being grounded for six years because of an inner-ear ailment, he commanded the Apollo 14 mission and became the fifth of only 12 men to set foot on the moon. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1979. Mr. Shepard, a 1944 Naval Academy graduate, once flew test planes at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

He never cared much for "The Right Stuff" description that novelist Tom Wolfe coined to describe the combination of guts, patriotism and wild abandon that each of the original Mercury Seven astronauts seemed to possess.

But the right stuff is exactly what Mr. Shepard had. He sat in a tiny capsule attached to an unpredictable rocket that exploded off the Earth. By spending less than five minutes in space, he changed forever what this nation thought it could accomplish.

Pub Date: 7/25/98

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