THE FIRST TIME I MET Alan Shepard was about a week after he and the other Mercury astronauts had been chosen in April 1959.

They all came down to Cape Canaveral, where I was with the AP as correspondent. We invited them out to the press site to watch a night launch of an Atlas rocket.It went up for about 65 seconds and then blew up all over the sky. Shepard turned to John Glenn and said, "We're going to ride one of those things?"

Before the first manned flight, NASA had narrowed the choice to Shepard, Glenn and Gus Grissom. Shepard was given the assignment, and, after a three-day weather delay, blasted off on May 5, 1961.

Twenty days after that, President Kennedy made the announcement that America would aim to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

"We all thought he was crazy," Shepard told me later. "Here we have one 16-minute flight, suborbital at that, and he's sending us to the moon!"

For a long time, Shepard was grounded because of an inner ear infection. He and Deke Slayton, who had an irregular heartbeat, were running the astronauts' office in Houston, in charge of picking all the crews. Shepard ran it with an iron hand, but his heart was never in it.

"I just hated having to go down and pat all those people on the rear and wish them good luck and put them in the spacecraft," he told me. "I wanted to fly myself."

He got the chance again during Apollo when a newly devised operation cured his condition. Apollo 13 was the next mission available, so Slayton chose him to command it, along with two rookie crewmen.

But NASA said no, we can't have one guy with only a flight of just over 15 minutes behind him and two guys who have never flown. They need more training. It was the only crew Slayton ever had rejected.

So Jim Lovell went on 13, and, of course, it was a near-disaster. After it was over, the first thing he said to Shepard when he saw him was, "Hey, Al, do you still want 13? It's yours."

When Shepard got Apollo 14, he was as excited as a kid. After he came back, he told me he broke down in tears when he stepped on the moon. "It was a long time getting there after being grounded all those years," he said. After he retired from NASA, he went into business and became a millionaire. I would interview him on each one of his anniversaries, his fifth, his 10th, his 15th.

For his 20th, I went out to Houston where he had a Coors beer distributorship in Deer Park, a suburb out in roughneck territory where they did oil refining. We did the interview in the distributorship, where he had built a replica of an English pub.

All of a sudden he said, "Hey, every once in a while I take the truck out and deliver the beer myself. Let's go."

So we made the rounds of the taverns. They were definitely Bud-weiser people out there, not Coors, but he would just charm the heck out of them, acting just like an old roughneck with the guys.

When I drove off after the interview, he called out for me to roll down my window and threw a six-pack in the car. "Now all you need is a rifle," he added.

After I retired from AP in 1990, Shepard asked me to run the Mercury 7 Foundation (now the U.S. Astronaut Foundation at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame), of which he was president. It was set up to raise money for college scholarships for science and engineering students.

Because he was the only guy who ever hit a golf ball on the moon, people would pay thousands of dollars for a chance to play golf with him. He donated every penny he got from personal appearances to the foundation and raised at least $500,000 that way.

It was always a dream of Shepard's to have his Apollo 14 capsule on display at our astronaut hall of fame. A couple of years ago, the Smithsonian put it on tour along with his Mercury Freedom 7 capsule. Shepard would show up at each stop at his own expense to help publicize the exhibit, all the while lobbying to get it moved down here.

Last year, when we realized Shepard was sick and wasn't holding up very well, Don Engen, head of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, arranged to have the Apollo 14 capsule shipped down here. But we kept it a secret until the last minute.

The night before the unveiling, there was a big dinner in Shepard's honor at Walt Disney World.

"Al, you've been bugging me all these years," Engen told him, as Shepard broke into tears. "Well, you've finally got your capsule."