Alan Shepard Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first American astronaut to fly in space.

Alan Bartlett Shephard, Jr., was born to Colonel Alan B. Shepard and his wife in East Derry, New Hampshire. He graduated from Pinkerton Academy in Derry and spent a year studying at Admiral Farragut Academy in Toms River, New Jersey, prior to his acceptance into the United States Naval Academy.

Shepard pursued flight training after World War II, earning his wings in 1947. Completing U.S. Naval Test Pilot School training in 1950, he remained at the school, participating in high-altitude research, flight operations development for a naval in-flight refueling system, F2-H3 Banshee testing for carrier deployment, and angled carrier-deck development.

After two tours of duty in the Pacific aboard the USS Oriskany, Shepard returned to the Naval Test Pilot School to fly F-3H Demon, F-8U Crusader, F-4D Skyray, F-11F Tiger, and F-5D Skylancer aircraft. Shepard achieved instructor status there, but five months later entered the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, graduating in 1958.

After the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began screening military files for potential astronauts, Shepard’s test-pilot career singled him out as a prime candidate. In April, 1959, Shepard was one of the seven astronauts selected for Project Mercury. The Mercury astronauts worked cooperatively on all aspects of Project Mercury but competed for flight assignments. In 1960, NASA picked Shepard, John Glenn, and Virgil “Gus” Grissom to train for a suborbital Mercury-Redstone mission.

Although the Soviets had beaten the Americans into space by launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961, NASA moved forward with Project Mercury. Shepard lifted off on May 5, 1961, inside his Freedom 7 spacecraft strapped atop a Redstone missile. Shepard was exposed to high g forces and five minutes of weightlessness. The spacecraft achieved a 116-mile altitude before splashing down in the Atlantic 302 miles from Cape Canaveral.

Three years later, Shepard was grounded by Meniere’s syndrome, an inner-ear condition capable of inducing nausea, ringing ears, and vestibular disturbances. He was reassigned to Astronaut Office management. In 1969, Shepard underwent surgery that corrected his condition, and, within six months, he had gained command of Apollo 14.

The Apollo 14 mission launched on January 31, 1971, with Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell. Shepard and Mitchell touched down Lunar Module Antares in the Fra Mauro region, deployed scientific instruments on the lunar surface, and collected samples during two moonwalks. Shepard hit two golf balls before leaving the surface. After 33 hours, Shepard and Mitchell lifted off the Moon to rejoin Roosa. Apollo 14 splashed down in the Pacific on February 9.

In 1974, Shepard retired from the Navy and NASA. He enjoyed subsequent success in the business world, helping found the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1997, Shepard valiantly fought the disease and expected to join the other surviving Mercury astronauts to witness their colleague Glenn fly aboard space shuttle Discovery in late 1998. However, Shepard’s condition worsened, and Shephard died on July 21, 1998, three months before Glenn’s mission.

  • Carpenter, Scott M., et. al. We Seven. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962. Describes Project Mercury from the viewpoint of the astronauts.
  • Shepard, Alan, and Deke Slayton, with Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. Atlanta: Turner, 1994. A history of NASA’s race for the Moon from two astronauts’ viewpoints.
  • Slayton, Donald K., and Michael Cassutt. Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle. New York: Forge, 1994. A chronicle of the early days of the space program, written by an astronaut involved with selection and training of crews.

Apollo Program

Crewed spaceflight

Yuri Gagarin

John Glenn

Mercury project

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Navy pilots, U.S.


Test pilots

Alan Shepard undergoes a flight simulation test preparatory to his Mercury flight in 1961.

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