Read Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman Online

Authors: Neal Thompson

Tags: #20th Century, #History, #United States, #Biography & Autobiography, #Astronauts, #Biography, #Science & Technology, #Astronautics

Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman

BOOK: Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman
2.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Table of Contents

Title Page







1 - “Alan was really kind of a loner”

2 - “I think I love you”

3 - “The kamikazes raised hell last night”

4 - “UNSAFE FOR SOLO” in Zoom Town

5 - A perfectly charming son of a bitch

6 - Shepard should be court-martialed

7 - “Do you wish to declare an emergency?”

8 - “That little rascal”


9 - “We made them heroes, the first day they were picked”

10 - Eyeballs in, eyeballs out

11 - “A harlot of a town”

12 - “I think I got myself in trouble”

13 - “We had ’em by the short hairs, and we gave it away”

14 - “Light this candle!”

15 - “I believe we should go to the moon”

16 - “I’m sick . . . should I just hang it up?”

17 - How to succeed in business without really fllying—much

18 - “Captain Shepard? I’m Charles Lindbergh”

19 - “What’s wrong with this ship?”


20 - “When you’ve been to the moon, where else are you going to go?”

21 - “I saw a different Alan Shepard, completely different”

22 - “This is the toughest man I’ve ever met”




About the Author

Copyright Page



For Mary



Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.


Praise for Neal Thompson’s


“Alan Shepard captured the imagination of America perhaps more than any other astronaut. I was so proud he was our friend, and even more proud of the example of courage that he set for so many people around the world. He was a good man, and Barbara and I loved him.”

President George H. W. Bush

“Just a wonderful and gripping biography . . . meticulously reported in the best tradition of David Halberstam. It is written with eloquent grace. Most satisfying of all,
Light This Candle
is the can’t-put-it-down story of a modern swashbuckler determined to conquer the universe whatever the risk. In Thompson’s hands, an amazing life, the ultimate American life, comes alive so exquisitely.”

Buzz Bissinger
New York Times
bestselling author of
Friday Night Lights

“Just what a biography should be: sharp, evocative, and brisk.”


“Shepard was a very complicated individual. He had all the attributes to be successful, but he always lived on the edge. He had the perseverance to live through his medical problems to finally fly to the moon, but he didn’t always follow the rules.
Light This
captures the many facets of Alan Shepard.”

Captain James A. Lovell

“Thompson shows that Shepard was an immensely complicated and conflicted man whose many passions drove him to feats of extraordinary bravery and accomplishment, but also to dangerous flirtations with self-destructions.”

Air &

“Story-telling at its best . . . Every page is alive.”

David Hartman
U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings

“Tough to say what’s cooler: that Alan Shepard was the first American in space, or that he hit a golf ball on the moon.
This Candle
chronicles the amazing life of the brashest, funniest astronaut ever.”


“The fullest portrait [of Shepard] yet. Does much to illuminate the life and personality of perhaps the most private and complex member of the Mercury Seven.”


“The thoroughness of his research is impressive, and his fast-paced narrative keeps the pages turning.”

Paul Stillwell
director, History Division, U.S. Naval Institute

“Journalist Thompson reveals another side of this all-American navy pilot with the right stuff. A snappily written, factual counterbalance to Tom Wolfe’s sometimes poetic renderings of the heroes of the early space program.”


“Neal Thompson has taken a larger-than-life figure about whom we thought we knew all we needed to know, subjected him to rigorous investigative reporting and dogged shoe-leather research, and produced a gripping, highly readable tale that makes Alan Shepard, one of the iconic figures of the past half century, even more fascinating without diminishing his heroic dimensions.”

Robert Timberg
author of
The Nightingale’s Song
State of Grace: A Memoir of Twilight Time

“A valuable addition to the library of books on the space program.”


“Thompson has thoroughly researched Shepard. . . . [The] first full-dress biography of a complex space pioneer.”


“A quick and thoroughly captivating read.”


“A fine book that depicts Shepard vividly. [The] prose crackles with the kind of energy Americans remember from those first broadcasts from space itself. Thompson’s persistence in interviewing Shepard’s surviving colleagues has bared Shepard’s soul in ways the man himself seemed incapable of doing.
Light This
in contrast to the swagger of Wolfe’s
Right Stuff,
exposes Shepard as a complex individual who had to battle his own ambition and ego to become a better man.”


“An illuminating look at America’s first spaceman. [Thompson] writes with eloquent grace. This is one of the finest books ever written about our space program. The thoroughness of the author’s research is impressive.”


“An extremely readable account of the life of a Navy pilot and America’s first astronaut hero.”


“A highly readable effort to explain this remarkable American.”

The Charlotte Observer

“The story remains irresistible, no matter how often it’s told. . . . Thompson’s biography hits all the right notes . . . professional, conscientious, and honest.”


“A rare, warts-and-all portrait—and Shepard had a lot of warts. Thompson does a stellar job painting a real-life figure who never really showed his true self to anyone.”


“ ‘Light this candle’ is a phrase that tells us a lot about the way America’s first spaceman lived his life . . . an enjoyable composition spiced with humor and anecdotes.”


“Alan Shepard c
omes through as ambit
ious, cold, and often
selfish. He also com
es through as compete
nt, determined, and b


“A well-researc
hed biography [and] a
long overdue account
of Alan Shepard . .
. A welcome addition
to the history of the
nation’s space


“This excellent
biography . . . atte
mpts to explain how s
uch a remarkable pers
onality could remain
almost invisible to p
ublic scrutiny. Thomp
son’s thorough
research has uncovere
d a surprising amount
of information about
Shepard. This book i
s long overdue and a
fitting tribute to Am
erica’s first man in space.”

Flight Journal


Today, it is all too easy to think of the first 15-minute ballistic flight of Project Mercury as a mere blip on the history screen of manned space flight. In 1961, believe me, it was anything but a simple thing to do. The buildup to this flight by the media, Congress, the White House and, frankly, the entire world was overwhelming. The space race with the Russians had been heating up for some time, and the technical reputation of the United States hung in the balance.

Add to this the fact that the reliability of a rocket-propelled system in 1961 was not much better then 60 percent and you may begin to have a feel for the anxiety all of us were experiencing. All but the most optimistic flight surgeons questioned the human response to being at zero gravity for extended periods of time. Many learned doctors in the medical community predicted dire results, such as total disorientation, loss of vision, and a lack of capability to perform the smallest task. Skeptics who thought we were venturing beyond the state of the art were many.
we were informed seve
ral weeks before the flight that it was to be done with real-time coverage of the world press.

All of us in flight operations came into the space program with varied backgrounds and education. My personal background was from the airplane flight test group of the NACA at Langley Field, Virginia. My entire career had been spent interfacing with new and high-speed airplanes. We were accustomed to exploring the outer edges of the envelope of an airplane’s performance. But we had no idea what we were getting into in the realm of space.

I was familiar with the personalities one could expect from men who recognized they worked in a dangerous and sometimes unpredictable business. In the time period that Alan Shepard participated in the U.S. Space Program, there were many astronauts who performed outstanding feats. But among the first seven chosen in 1959, Shepard almost immediately stood out as the leading candidate to be the first man in space for the United States. He appeared to many as an egotist bent on being first, and his sometimes aloof attitude left an impression that he was a cold and distant individual. H
owever, to those of us with whom he worked and trained for one of the most grueling tasks as a space test pilot, he was always the pilot who we knew would not only excel but perform precisely as advertised.

Shepard came to the NASA Space Task Group as a veteran and proven airplane test pilot. His experience as a flyer was well documented, and his reputation at the Navy Flight Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, was exemplary. Therefore, as we began training for the first manned flight of the Redstone, it was no surprise to me that he was all business and ready to make his mark on history. I must say that from day one of our meeting in mission control to begin the detail training for the first manned flight, I was impressed with Shepard’s desire to do it right. He was intelligen
t, well versed in the Mercury spacecraft systems, ready to perform all of the tasks required, and totally committed to the purpose of proving man’s capability to work and survive in the rigorous environment of space.

Put yourself in the seat with Alan Shepard as you sit on the top of a rocket standing on the launchpad fuming gaseous oxygen and resting on three solid rockets to be used for reentry into the atmosphere, and an escape rocket above you triggered to slam you away from a system that could be headed in a direction other than planned or exploding while you hope that the escape rocket will automatically carry you away from the resultant fireball. On top of that, you are inside a spaceship that is about to carry you straight up to about 115 miles and then deposit you in the Atlantic Ocean
more than 300 miles downrange. If you can imagine that experience, then you can understand the type of man Alan Shepard was.

The other thought you should have as you venture into this story is the impact that the success of one of man’s first space flights had on the country and the world at the time. It was this singular event that prompted President Kennedy to challenge the technical and scientific communities of the United States to land men on the moon and bring them safely back to earth in the decade to follow.

Alan Shepard’s life is documented in this book to help the reader understand who this American hero was. It is a tremendous read about a great human being that dedicated himself—not just once, but many times during his life—to extending the frontiers of flight.

CHRIS KRAFT, August 24, 2004
NASA’s first flight director, former director of the
Johnson Space Center, and author of the
New York
Flight: My Life in Mission Control


BOOK: Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman
2.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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