Born Nov. 18, 1923 (and a direct descendant of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren), Alan B. Shepard, Jr., became part of history when he became the first American in space during the Mercury flight in 1961. He also holds the distinction as the oldest person to walk on the moon—he was 47 during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, during which he also famously hit a pair of golf balls on the lunar surface using a makeshift club.
His name wouldn’t be in the record books, however, if he hadn’t made a key decision right after World War II.
Shepard had been sent to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, to begin flight school in early 1946. The only issue was that he was, at best, an average student and was about ready to be dropped from the program. Instead of being deterred, he decided to take private flying lessons despite the Navy preferring he not do so. He earned his civilian pilots license and, as his skills improved, he was eventually rated as above average. Once he passed his final test, which included six perfect landings on the aircraft carrier USS Saipan, he received his naval aviator wings and began his career on the Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1948.
The next chance Shepard had to end his flying career came while he was part of the team testing the McDonnell F2H Banshee in the early 1950s. During one test flight, Shepard decided to take a few high-speed, low altitude passes along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and over the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, much to the chagrin of station commander Rear Admiral Alfred M. Pride. He avoided being court martialed thanks to his supervisors and went on to instruct pilots on how to fly jets, and tested such planes as the McDonnell F3H Demon, Vought F-8 Crusader, and Douglas F4D Skyray.
In 1959 he was part of the first group of seven astronauts selected for the newly formed American space program and was chosen to be the first one to go to space. (When he was later asked by reporters about what it was like to be sitting on top of the rocket, waiting for lift off, he responded with his famous wit: “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.”)
Further trips into orbit were put on hold when he was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease in 1963, which caused nausea and dizziness. He was put in charge of astronaut training until surgery corrected the issue in 1969, allowing him to return to flight duty and serve as commander of Apollo 14, becoming the only astronaut from the Mercury program to walk on the moon.
His efforts on Apollo 14 led to him earning the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and a promotion to Rear Admiral. After retiring from the military in 1974, he went on to have a very successful career in finance, real estate, and even owned an umbrella company (named Seven Fourteen, after his Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, and the Apollo mission). He passed away in 1998, and numerous highways, scholarships, and awards are now named in his honor.