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Rocket Men : Alan Shepard

July 10, 1994|SUSAN KING

One of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, the former Navy test pilot became the first man into space on May 5, 1961. In December, 1963, he was grounded because of an inner-ear disorder and became chief of the astronaut office. In May, 1969, his disorder was surgically treated and he was returned to flight status. In July, 1971, he returned to space on Apollo 14. Shepard, now 70, became the first man to play golf on the lunar surface.

Were you scared on your first flight into space?

I don't think scared is the right word. Nervous . Obviously, you practiced for all kinds of things to go wrong. You have trained to respond to emergency situations. Still, you are a bit nervous when you are sitting on top of the rocket. . . . I (was) nervous that I might make a mistake, same thing as a youngster taking an exam. He's a little bit nervous, but as soon as the kid starts to answer the first question of the exam, he stops being nervous. As the rocket fires, you stop being nervous and pay attention to the rocket. You don't worry about nervousness.

Why did you hit golf balls on the moon on the Apollo 14 flight?

It was not spontaneous. Several months before the flight, I thought about it. On the moon, golf balls are going to go six times as far and it's not going to slice or hook because there's no atmosphere. So I started to practice. We had a collapsible handle which had a scoop on the end of it to scoop up dust samples. The handle would be left up there, so I took the end of a No. 6 iron because that was about the length of the handle. I had it so it would snap on the end in place of the scoop. I took some pictures and then told the boss what I wanted to do. First, he said "No." And then I said, "Wait a minute, boss." I showed him the pictures. I said I paid for the club head and paid for the golf balls, so no expense to the taxpayers. I said, "Suppose I wait to the very end of the lunar mission, just before we were supposed to leave. If anything has gone wrong or we have equipment failures or had screwed up, anything like that, I won't hit the golf balls. But if everything has gone completely right, then the last thing I'll do before I go is whack these two golf balls. I won't even get them. I will leave them up there." And he said, "That's a deal."

How do you regard the state of NASA today?

We would like to see a full level of funding that would keep the space station on schedule. I think we all understand that most of the people don't really know what's going on at NASA. But it's a very mature sense of exploration in looking into various fields of science. All the experiments they are doing up on the shuttle--I would say they are going to help people make their life better. The average citizen doesn't know this. That's why they're having difficulty with the Congress because they don't realize that either. They don't understand basic research. When we start talking about the experiments that the space station will be doing--looking back at the planet, looking at the ozone levels, looking at pollution, and doing it on a worldwide basis--then they are going to say those NASA guys are doing something for us on this planet after all.

Would you go into space again?

Oh yeah, absolutely. But I wouldn't want to go through the thousands of hours of training again. I am too old for that (laughs).

WALTER (WALLY) SCHIRRA

Another of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, the former lieutenant commander and Korean War veteran made his first foray into space on Oct. 3, 1962, in the Sigma Seven. On the longest American mission to that date--nine hours--Schirra performed a series of scientific and engineering experiments. On Dec. 15, 1965, Schirra and Tom Stafford took off in the Gemini 6, which achieved a historic rendezvous with Gemini 7, steering within 6 to 8 inches of it. And on Oct. 11, 1968, Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Don Eisle lifted off in the Apollo 7. Schirra developed a severe head cold and the crew complained about the workload, including last-minute changes in their flight program. Schirra, 71, is known as the prankster among the Mercury 7 astronauts.

What were your feelings about the movie "The Right Stuff"?

Well, my appellation for that was "Animal House in Space," which I said often enough that Tom Wolfe (who wrote the best-selling book) called me and said, "My first bid for movie rights was from (John) Belushi and (Dan) Aykroyd, which would have made it a much better comedy." I met Lance Henrikson (who played Schirra in the movie) at the premiere. That is the only time I have seen it really. He said, "Did I get you wrong!" I kept saying I had more time in my Actifed commercial than I did in that movie, and it was a 30-second commercial.

How did you feel when you weren't given the first manned flight into space?

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