In a heartfelt memorial, the four remaining members of the Mercury program paid tribute Saturday to Alan B. Shepard Jr., who led them and all of America into space.
"Alan Shepard was many things," said Sen. John Glenn. "He was a patriot, he was a leader, he was a competitor, a fierce competitor. He was a hero. Most importantly to us, he was a close friend."Mercury 7 astronauts Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra and Gordon Cooper were among more than 850 people attending the Johnson Space Center ceremony punctuated by tearful humor. It ended with a flyover salute by training jets in the "missing man" formation.
"The brotherhood we have will endure forever," Schirra said in a choked-up voice. "I'll make it, I know that."
Shepard was 74 when he died in his sleep July 21 while being treated for leukemia at a Monterey, Calif., hospital.
He was the third member of America's seven original astronauts to die; preceded by Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, who died of brain tumor in 1993, and Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, who died in the Apollo I fire in 1967.
It was Shepard's 15-minute flight on May 5, 1961, aboard the Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft that established the United States' presence in space.
Ten years later, after overcoming a serious inner-ear disorder that affected his balance for six years, Shepard returned to space on the Apollo mission aimed at landing a man on the moon. He commanded the Apollo 14 on Jan. 31, 1971.
He is one of 12 people to have walked on the moon and the only one to have driven a golf ball from the lunar surface.
His colleagues vividly remembered Shepard's no-nonsense zest for life, America, his family and devilish penchant for speed - particularly behind the wheel of his beloved Corvette.
"We raced many miles in identical Corvettes," Cooper told the crowd, then looked straight ahead, as if joking to his late friend: "I'm sorry, Al, but I never told you that I changed the ratio in the differential."
Then he became more serious.
"Now you're up there in that big hangar in the sky," Cooper said. "We miss you, Al. We'll be there before long and we'll try some of that flying ourselves."