Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, American’s First Space Man by Neal Thompson

Crown Publishers 2004    464 pp  $27.50


One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey by Leon Wagener

Tom Doherty Associates 2004  302 pp.   $25.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


George Bush recently announced a plan to send people to Mars, a lame election-year feint that sought to recover some of the patriotic unity that suffused the early years of the American space program.  The biographies of two star astronauts, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong—the first man in space, and on the moon, respectively—remind us of how the proper blend of bleeding edge technology and political rhetoric can not only unify but inspire a nation.

Both men shared an obsession with flight, both were emotionally reserved and almost comically competitive, but neither was the cheerful, family-man android portrayed in the press. 

Alan Shepard, born in 1923, was seven years Armstrong’s senior.  His first plane ride, a birthday gift at age fourteen, determined the rest of his life.  A New Englander, Shepard carried with him an innate sense of both reserve and superiority that inspired both awe and loathing in equal measure.  Thompson notes that he could be “charming, hilarious, warm, inviting, generous, and even sexy,” but within NASA he was known as “the Icy Commander, with his egotistical insouciance, his questionable morals, his disregard for authority, and disdain for the press.”

Shepard was an indifferent student at the Naval Academy.  Following graduation, accidents of birth and military assignment prevented him from combat flying in wartime, unlike the flyboy hero John Glenn.  Throughout his life he campaigned for the most dangerous assignment possible, which in the late forties was landing planes on aircraft carriers. 

By the Fifties the military was acquiring jets, “fast, complex, imperfect pieces of machinery … some of the most complicated mechanical concoctions humanity had ever produced.  They allowed humans to travel one, two, and then three times the speed of sound.  But they also leaked oil, creaked and groaned, spontaneously exploded, mysteriously spun out at high altitudes, and crashed without warning.”

In 1959, Shepard was chosen, along with six others, to be among the first men in space.  He immediately set about using his considerable personal charm to assure that he was the first, a campaign that pitted him against NASA’s golden boy, John Glenn.  Shrewd politicking and a willingness to push himself physically and mentally resulted in NASA’s decision to pick “the best of the best of the best” for the first, fifteen-minute ride in space in Freedom 7.

Following his sub-orbital flight, Shepard naturally thought he should be the first in the Gemini flights and the first man on the moon, but a combination of politics and a rare affliction of the inner ear kept Shepard grounded until his second, and final flight, a trip to the moon in Apollo 14, where he reinforced his reputation as a prankster by playing golf on the lunar surface.

Shepard’s pioneering journey bore its ultimate fruit on July 16, 1969, when over half a billion of the world’s people watched a quiet engineer and test pilot descend a ladder onto the moon’s surface, a small step for a man whose accomplishment is considered by many the greatest feat of exploration in human history.  Wagener traces the path of Neil Armstrong, an Ohio boy with a love for flying from Midwestern obscurity to becoming the most famous man in the world.

Born in St Mary’s, Ohio in 1930, Neil and his family moved in the early 1940s to Wapakoneta, the town he considers home.  A self-possessed, studious, energetic student, Neil saved what little money he earned to pay for flying lessons.  “He was awarded his aviator’s license and could fly before he could drive a car.”

Armstrong diligently attended Purdue University.  By his fourth semester, however, he was in the Navy in Pensacola, training to fly fighter aircraft.  Unlike Shepard, Armstrong became a decorated hero, flying 78 missions in Korea.  Following his return, he graduated from Purdue and became an X-15 test pilot. 

Like Shepard, Armstrong had a reputation for emotional remoteness, but unlike the wild-and-crazy Shepard, “Armstrong would never in his life be mistaken for the life of the party.  In fact, through his life he was seen as stiff and boring by people who couldn’t or wouldn’t penetrate his Midwestern reserve.”  Like many men of his generation, Armstrong was neither verbal nor emotionally forthcoming, yet, as a friend of his suggested, “he was never any kind of recluse.  Neil was just a man who needed a lot of breathing room.”  Even his wife, Jan, said, “to Neil, silence is an answer, no is an argument.”

Wagener reports that the moon launch was not the sure thing presented to the public—the risk assessment prior to the flight suggested 5-10 to 1 odds against the flight’s success, and the astronauts themselves, Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. and Michael Collins all considered their chances to be fifty-fifty.

The numbers describing the journey still inspire awe: a $28 billion dollar program that produced a round trip journey of 826,300 miles, atop a 37-story rocket, “the most powerful machine every built by man,” that needed to reach an escape velocity of 24,667 miles; followed by a lunar landing that barely avoided disaster. 

On their return Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were feted around the world; the New York street parade alone drew 4 million people, while one in Chicago produced 2 million cheering fans.  Nixon, anxious to capitalize politically on NASA’s technological success, sent them around the world on a goodwill tour.

Wagener reminds us, however, that the neither the public nor the press were universal in their adulation.

“Most of the national press corps covering the space program were political and social opposites of the flyers: urban versus rural, liberal versus conservative.  But the most fundamental difference, and the source of greatest friction, was that the press largely saw the space program as a sideshow designed by the government to take the public’s mind off Vietnam, race relations, and other troubling issues of the day.  It was seen by the press and much of the public as a slightly circus-like endeavor, akin to shooting someone out of a cannon.”

Both men served stints as NASA administrators following their flying days.  Armstrong worked for a while at NASA, where “he accomplished some important things in the field of aviation safety and instituted useful air-safety projects.” Following that, he taught for ten years at the University of Cincinnati, where he helped with heart-transplant technology, eventually settling on a farm in Lebanon, Ohio.  He divorced in 1990.

After leaving NASA, Shepard prospered in his post-flying life, becoming wealthy through a string of investments, principally in real estate and banking.  He died of leukemia in 1998, followed by his ever-indulgent wife, Louise, five weeks later, who was stricken by a heart attack while on a commercial flight.

Following two devastating in-flight explosions—total losses of crew and machine—NASA gives every appearance of a bloated, money-devouring bureaucracy, whose cozy relations with contractors outweigh safety interests.  Thompson and Wagener, in offering their straightforward stories, lacking altogether in cynicism, have provided valuable additions to the library of books on the space program.  One hopes they will be a couple of small steps in reviving genuine, apolitical interest in one of America’s most inspiring undertakings, space exploration.