Alan Shepard, American Hero

Not many people would have the presence of mind or the creativity of instinct to hit golf balls on the moon. What kind of guy would even dream that up?

That would be Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., the first American to travel into space and, later, the oldest American in the space program, piloting the Apollo 14 mission, and the fifth person to walk on the moon. It was during the Apollo 14 mission that he teed up with a six iron.

Shepard died of leukemia near his home in Pebble Beach, California, on July 21, 1998, 15 years ago today. President Bill Clinton called him ''one of the great heroes of modern America.''

Not long after his historic first trip into space, he contracted Meniere's disease – an inner ear issue – that grounded him to NASA desk jobs for most of the 1960s, but it was successfully operated on before the moon flight and Shepard's legendary golf game. After his NASA career, he went on to a successful career in business and served on many corporate boards and as president of Seven Fourteen Enterprises – an umbrella company named for his two flights, Freedom 7 and Apollo 14.

According to a CNN obituary, Tom Wolfe, in his book The Right Stuff, wrote about two Alan Shepards: one, "the utterly, and if necessary, icily correct career Navy officer," and the other, "Smilin' Al of the Cape," who was "a fun-loving, fast-moving [he drove a Corvette] party animal."

Alan Shepard poses on the moon (Image via NASA)Shepard grew up on a farm in New Hampshire and attended a one-room schoolhouse, finishing six grades in five years. Like many kids in that era, he had a paper route and bought a bicycle, often riding to a local airport to hang out – cleaning hangars and pushing airplanes.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Shepard was a good athlete and member of the varsity crew. One classmate, according to CNN, remembered him as "undistinguished, but a real likable guy." During his life, Shepard was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by President John F. Kennedy, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by President Jimmy Carter, the highest award of the Smithsonian Institution and many other trophies and medals.

There is a road named after him in Hampton, Virginia, and a Naval supply ship with the moniker USNS Alan Shepard. A portion of Interstate 93 in New Hampshire bears his name (from Massachusetts to a N.H. turnpike), as does a portion of Interstate 564 in Alabama, near Huntsville. Derry, N.H.'s nickname is "Space Town" in his honor and the U.S. Post Office building there is named after him. His high school team is known as the Astros and many other schools across the country pay tribute to him, too. Alan Shepard Park is in Cocoa Beach, Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral. And two years ago, the post office issued a first class stamp in his honor.

Shepard resisted being called a hero and the treatment that came with it, but at one point, after the 1961 flight, he finally gave in. "I must admit," he said, "maybe I am a piece of history after all."

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."