Alan Shepard remembers everything - every image, every sensation, every sound - from that glorious May morning 30 years ago when he became America's first space pioneer.
Those memories are among his most prized possessions. They also are among his most private, savored every so often, ever so quietly."It's a very personal pride. It's something I enjoy reflecting on to myself, and it's not something upon which I dwell," said Shepard, now 67 and a millionaire businessman in Houston.
"I just wanted to be the first one to fly for America, not because I'd end up in the pages of history books," he said.
The former Navy test pilot considers his 15-minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, the most exciting point of his career. The 33 hours he spent on the moon 10 years later were more satisfying, but less dramatic.
He keeps both events in careful perspective.
"It was one of the things that I did," he said matter-of-factly. "You put it in a box, wrap it up with a ribbon and put it on a shelf and there it is. You move on.
"I've got two pretty packages with ribbons on a shelf, and I unwrap them once in a while like we're doing today."
Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., one of the seven revered Mercury astronauts, was the first American but second earthling to be flung across the threshold of space. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat him by 23 days.
The two pioneers never met; Gagarin was killed in a plane crash in 1968. Despite the Soviets' accomplishment, or perhaps because of it, Americans watched breathlessly as Shepard slipped into his Freedom 7 capsule that famous May 5. It was the second launch attempt; the first one three days earlier was foiled by storms.
For more than four hours, Shepard sat in the cramped capsule on Pad 5, waiting impatiently as NASA corrected problems with an electrical system, a ground computer and the rocket's fuel pressure.
The Mercury Redstone finally ignited at 9:34 a.m. and lifted Shepard - and America's dreams - into space. He soared 116 miles high and 302 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral, reaching a speed of 5,100 mph before plopping into the Atlantic Ocean.
Shepard prophetically called his flight "just the first baby step, aiming for bigger and better things." Less than three weeks later, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy set forth the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
After overcoming a serious ear infection that lingered six years and forced him into a desk job, Shepard went on to become one of the 12 moon walkers, and the only lunar golfer. He commanded Apollo 14 in 1971, his second and last space flight.
The former astronaut continually marvels over the progress made by NASA since his quick, little ride on a Redstone. A weatherworn plaque on the blockhouse at Pad 5, now a tour bus stop, bears these words: "From this beginning man reached the moon."
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has launched 71 manned flights since that humble start, with 161 individuals.
Ten astronauts have died in mission-related accidents, seven when the shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986, and three - including original Mercury astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom - when a spark touched off an inferno that incinerated the Apollo I cabin Jan. 27, 1967 on the Kennedy Space Center launch pad.
"Thirty years ago, the large percentage of population thought we were crazy sitting on the top of a rocket and allowing ourselves to be thrust into space," Shepard said. "There was a lot of doubt . . . especially from some of the more learned members of the medical community who thought that man shouldn't be in space, it wasn't his place to be there.
"Had we said 30 years ago that we were going to put man in space for 30 years and we're only going to have two accidents, we would have said, `Boy, we'll take that right now.' Certainly, pushing out the frontiers as we did and still are doing, and having one accident in flight, the other on the ground, really is remarkable."
Shepard's cone-shaped capsule was 6 feet by 9 feet. The slender, black and white Redstone stood 83 feet, counting the capsule, and had 78,000 pounds of thrust.
Today's shuttle is 184 feet tall and packs 7.7 million pounds of thrust.
Space is no longer the focus of Shepard's life. Business is.
Shepard is a developer of commercial property, a partner in a venture capital group, and a director of mutual fund companies, among other things. He also is chairman of the board of the Mercury Seven Foundation, which raises money for science and engineering scholarships and keeps him in frequent contact with the five other Mercury men.
Shepard's sense of humor is as keen as ever. As to why he gave up his Corvette a few years ago:
"It was difficult to get up to 100 mph between my home and the office, when I only live three blocks away."
And as for being remembered in years to come:
"I only hope they spell my name right."