On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard launched from Cape Canaveral and into history. As the first American to travel in space, he energized the U.S. in its space competition with the Soviet Union and showed what was possible. Here are five things you may not know about this modern American hero.
1. He Was Almost the First Man in Space
Just 23 days separated the historic flights of Yuri Gagarin of Russia (the first man in space) and Alan Shepard. The U.S. flight was delayed for technical reasons. Shepard's 15-minute, 28-second flight achieved an altitude of 116 miles (186 kilometers) and a velocity of 5,134 miles (8,262 kilometers) per hour before coming back down to Earth. But while Gagarin was only a passenger in his vehicle, Shepard could maneuver his spacecraft, the Freedom 7. Also, unlike Gagarin, millions of people all over the world watched the whole event. Shepard's success allowed President John F. Kennedy to announce in Congress 10 days later the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
2. He Took Off in a Pee-stained Spacesuit
Since the flight was only supposed to be 15 minutes, NASA engineers had not made preparations in case Shepard needed to go to the bathroom after putting on his spacesuit. Big mistake. Delays meant he was in the rocket for over three hours, and he really had to go. But permission was denied — he already was strapped in and wearing medical sensors. Shepard then threatened to pee right in his spacesuit. Here's how writer Ben Evans described the rest of the story in AmericaSpace: "Managers wondered if the urine might short-circuit the medical wiring and electrical thermometers in his suit. Finally, [Gordon] Cooper [another astronaut] confirmed that the power had been temporarily switched off and, shortly thereafter, a drawn-out 'Ahhhhhh' emerged from the astronaut in the capsule ... The urine was absorbed by his long cotton underwear and quickly evaporated in the 100-percent pure oxygen atmosphere of the cabin."
After that flight, NASA got to work on adding a urinary collection device to the spacesuits.
3. He's the Only Person to Play Golf on the Moon
Shepard contracted Ménière's disease, an inner ear disorder, which kept him from going back to space for six years. He eventually had an operation to regain his equilibrium. After some more setbacks, he got the opportunity to command the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. At 47, he was the oldest astronaut in space and wanted to do something memorable. So, he smuggled a makeshift six-iron on board the spacecraft and hit two balls during his moonwalk. Shepard estimated that the second one soared 200 yards, thanks to the moon's much lower gravity.
“It was a little bit of flair and maybe 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,” said Neal Thompson, author of a biography on Shepard.
4. He May Not Have Coined That Famous Prayer or Slogan
In those hours waiting for the Freedom 7 to lift off, Shepard was supposed to have uttered what later became known as Shepard's Prayer (or sometimes the Astronaut's Prayer): "Dear Lord, please don't let me f--- up." However, Shepard later said he was misquoted, and the actual words were, “Don't f--- up, Shepard."
In another piece of misquoting, Shepard supposedly coined the phrase "Everything is A-OK" to describe his successful return to Earth after his historic flight. However, years later when a reporter asked him if had said it, he replied cryptically, "Ask Shorty Powers." Col. Powers was the press officer who passed on the quote to the media in the first place.
5. He Was the First Astronaut Millionaire
During the years when Shepard suffered from Ménière's disease, which causes vertigo and nausea, he considered leaving NASA, but ended up staying and taking a desk job as head of the astronaut office. He spent his free time investing in banks and real estate and soon became a millionaire. He retired from NASA in 1974 and became a chairman in Marathon Construction Company, and later president of a Coors beer distribution company in Houston. In the 1980s, he and the other surviving original astronauts created a scholarship foundation for science and engineering students. Shepard died in 1998.