The long shadow of his smile


Every so often you still see The Smile, the one we saw in Life magazine before the race to the moon had even begun. Alan B. Shepard flashes it now and then through three hours of signing hundreds of books, showing all those teeth and making it seem for an instant that not so much time has passed.

At 71, The First American in Space is trim, looks vigorous and seems not terribly surprised that the story of the Thursday's American-Russian space linkup did not get big play in all the papers.

"What else is new?" asks Mr. Shepard, who stopped at the Naval Academy on Induction Day yesterday to sign copies of his book "Moon Shot," which he co-wrote with former astronaut Deke Slayton and two reporters. "The moon landing program was so exciting, just one of the best chapters in the history of our country." Such excitement, he says, could not continue "without a lot of hype. You wouldn't want that."

He expresses some dismay about the lack of congressional support for the space program, suggesting that perhaps it has suffered from lack of understanding of the research needed to sustain it. But the U.S.-Soviet cooperation gives him hope of progress in space, he says, and he's figuring it won't be long before the Chinese get involved.

Tom Wolfe called him "Smilin' Al Shepard," and "The Icy Commander," the "fighter jock's fighter jock," one of the best test pilots the Navy ever saw. Of 508 U.S. test pilots in 1959, only 110 met NASA's standards for astronaut. Of those, only one would be chosen for the first ride on a Redstone rocket.

Thirty-four years ago, Mr. Shepard flew 15 minutes in the Freedom Seven capsule: 116 miles top altitude, not even a full orbit of the Earth, as the Soviets had done a month before. By the time then-Commander Shepard splashed into the Atlantic, 302 miles down range from Cape Canaveral, he was an American hero.

In February, 1971, Mr. Shepard landed and walked on the moon in the Apollo 14 mission. He spent nine hours walking around up there with fellow astronaut Ed Mitchell. Rear Admiral Shepard, Naval Academy Class of 1944, is the only man to hit a golf ball on the moon.

His three-hour signing session at the Academy's Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center stirred among the people in line memories of a time when the sense of national purpose was high and heroes still seemed possible.

"I remember the early missile testing" says Steve Jakubowski, 50, a United Airlines pilot from the Eastern Shore. "Watching those things blow up one after the other. Then to have Alan Shepard get on top of one of those things was unbelievable."

Mr. Jakubowski and his wife, Linda had come to the Academy to see their son, Ryan, off on his first day as a plebe. Two of their sons have graduated from the Academy and their youngest hopes to make the Class of 2002. They tell Mr. Shepard that their son, Jason, who graduated in 1993, is in flight school in Mississippi and hopes to become an astronaut. Mr. Shepard signed a copy for him: "See you on Mars."

Patrick Meehan and his wife Wanda had come from Janesville, Wis. to watch their son, Casey, go through induction ceremonies. Mr. Meehan, 49, an elementary school principal, says he was a boy growing up in Chicago when the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, triggering the space race.

"I remember in the backyard on the South Side of Chicago, watching Sputnik go over," says Mr. Meehan. When Commander Shepard made his first flight on the morning of May 5, 1961, he remembered that everything stopped in school for the announcement.

"It was kind of a pride in America," he says.

"I'm not the starry-eyed type, but meeting an astronaut, it's really a thrill," says Dale Snyder, 40, of Glen Burnie, who came to the Academy with his two sons just to see Mr. Shepard. He's a space-program aficionado with a library of books and a head full of facts on the subject.

"I was 5 years old in kindergarten when Alan Shepard first went into space," Mr. Snyder says. "I grew up with the space program. It's a part of my life."

This business of becoming a hero overnight took some getting used to, Mr. Shepard says. "For a couple weeks I had a problem with that," he says. He adjusted, he says. And he says he adjusted fairly easily to Life After Space.

Since he retired from NASA and the Navy in 1974, he has been involved in a number of businesses. He's living in Houston with his wife, Louise, and working as a partner in a venture capital firm and director of a couple of mutual fund groups.

The book, he says, was not his idea. It was not meant to set the record straight after Mr. Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," which Mr. Shepard dismisses as inaccurate.

Mr. Slayton, who died two years ago, asked Mr. Shepard to help him write the book with reporters Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict. The hardcover spent three months on the New York Times best-seller list last year, the paperback appeared this year. It's Mr. Shepard's first book, and his last, he says.

"I'll never do another one. You get a best seller, that's it," he says. And he smiles.

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