Birth of the Cool

Alan Barlett Shepard Jr., 1923-1998

shepard S61-00220.jpg
Shepard, a couple of weeks before his first spaceflight in May 1961. NASA

It was Wernher von Braun who kept Alan Shepard from becoming the first man in space. In March 1961, with the new Mercury spacecraft all buttoned up and ready to fly and the astronauts raring to go, NASA’s chief rocketeer insisted on one last test of his Redstone booster—even though engineers calculated the chance of astronaut survival to be a solid 98 percent. Shepard never forgave what he viewed as a failure of nerve that let Yuri Gagarin steal his and America’s triumph. “We had ’em by the short hairs,” he lamented in 1994, “and we gave it away.”

What, then, did Shepard’s 15-minute cannon shot, which followed Gagarin’s more impressive orbital flight by 23 days, really accomplish? For one thing, it inspired the new president, John Kennedy, to set the nation on a course for the moon. And it gave us the image of the cool astronaut, an icon as powerful as any in this century.

Shepard’s cool owed much to his experience as a Navy test pilot. At Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, he had helped wring out the F8U Crusader, F11F Tiger, F5D Skylancer, and other jets. He had also faced danger as a fighter pilot. In the early 1950s he landed an F2H Banshee on a carrier off the Korean coast, at night, in a storm, with his navigational system out. Military pilots, though, don’t normally have a nation’s self-esteem hanging on their performance, and their pulse rates aren’t usually reported in the newspaper for everyone to judge.

After his historic spaceflight , Shepard admitted to a few butterflies before liftoff. But when the launch managers—understandably cautious about gambling with someone’s life—called yet another hold in the countdown with less than three minutes to go, Shepard turned angry, and gave them tacit permission to take the risk they all knew they had to take. “I’m cooler than you are ,” he barked into his mike. “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

In the years since, this cool image has often been overplayed, as if astronauts were incapable of any other emotion. Standing on the moon in 1971, gazing up at the small, blue Earth, Shepard cried like a baby. We, of course, were not told about that at the time.

But on May 5, 1961, cool was exactly what was needed. Light this candle. Sometimes the only way to begin is to begin. And Alan Shepard, better than anyone, understood that. This issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian is dedicated to his memory.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.