Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Light This Candle, Neal Thompson

Of all the Mercury Seven astronauts, Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr always struck me as the most interesting. And not simply because he was the first American into space. Nor because he was the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon. Shepard seemed to have the most interesting personality, switching unpredictably from the "Icy Commander" to the joker who loved mimicking Bill Dana's hapless Hispanic astronaut, José Jimenez. After being diagnosed with Ménière's Disease and subsequently grounded, he hung in there at NASA until a new surgical technique allowed him to fly again. That suggests either a foolish optimism, a frighteningly grim level of determination, or an inhumanly stubborn inability to accept failure. The truth is probably a combination of all three, although heavily weighted in favour of the last.

Admittedly, Shepard does not fare particularly well in Philip Kaufman's film of The Right Stuff. Played by Scott Glenn, he comes across chiefly as an arrogant joker - and his jokes, his impressions of José Jimenez, seem pretty crude stuff to a modern viewer. Clearly there was more to Shepard than the movie showed. The same is true of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (Shepard is played by Ted Levine, better known as Lieutenant Stottlemeyer in Monk). Strangely, there are few books about Alan Shepard - in fact, in the prologue to Light This Candle Neal Thompson writes, "A quick Internet search told me that, except for a thin 1962 young-adult book, no biography existed on America's first astronaut". Happily, Thompson decided to rectify this oversight himself.

Light This Candle, subtitled "The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America's First Spaceman", opens with Shepard's childhood in rural New Hampshire. If there's a common factor becoming apparent in the biographies of astronauts, it's that they all exhibited an early interest in aeroplanes. An early pivotal event for most seems to have been a ride in an aircraft as a child, followed by spending time at the local aerodrome and then taking flying lessons. This is certainly what led Shepard to become a naval aviator. His career in the US Navy did not start spectacularly - he was initially an ordinary student at Annapolis, and nearly flunked. But he appeared to undergo some sort of sea-change, and from that moment on was almost fanatically driven - in sport, in his career, even in his pursuit of the woman who became his wife.

Throughout the book, Shepard is repeatedly quoted as saying that his ambition was always "to be first". It characterised his time in the Navy - mastering a skill such as landing on a carrier at night at a much younger age than his contemporaries, for example. It was his driving need to be first that led Shepard to Project Mercury and, ultimately, put him in the capsule of Freedom 7 on May 5 1961. It's not that Shepard was the best at everything, as Thompson makes clear, but that he used every weapon in his considerable armoury to make sure he got what he wanted. He was known as a charmer, a ladies' man, a back-stabber, a consummate politician, fierce in training, and definitely at the top of his profession (as all the Mercury astronauts were). If he was not the best, he certainly made sure that those who counted thought he was. That's one aspect of the man that The Right Stuff movie doesn't really get across. In the film, his choice as the first American into space seems more the result of luck than hard work and careful politicking.

Shepard's ambition is clear in every incident recounted in Light This Candle. The time, for example, when he almost had Gordon Cooper bumped from his Mercury flight, Faith 7, and the flight assigned to himself... But then Shepard was diagnosed with Ménière's Disease, a condition where fluid builds up in the inner ear, and so grounded. His astronaut career was over. His Gemini flight with Tom Stafford was given to Gus Grissom and John Young. Most people, having the career for which they had fought so hard come crashing down about their ears, would have tried to put as much distance between it and themselves. Not so Shepard. He became the Chief of the Astronaut Office, responsible for astronaut training, availability, readiness; and supplying pilot evaluations of equipment. I can't imagine what that would have been like. It might well have been the hardest thing Shepard ever did. And he did it for five years.

Happily, a new surgical technique corrected Shepard's Ménière's Disease, and he was returned to full flight status. He promptly politicked himself into command of Apollo 13. If Shepard had been unpopular before as the "Icy Commander" of the Astronaut Office, he was even less so after that. But he and his crew - Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa - needed more time to train and so were bumped to Apollo 14. Did Shepard deserve an Apollo mission? He was the oldest of the Apollo astronauts, and had not flown at all during Gemini. In fact, his only flight had been a 15-minute sub-orbital hop. Thompson doesn't really get to grips with this question, although he does recount how Cooper was furious - especially since Shepard's Apollo career happened at Cooper's expense.

Thompson is a journalist and Light This Candle is written in a journalistic style with simple, assertive prose. Thompson does give direct quotes, and even thoughts, by those who feature in his book, but each of these is referenced by an endnote. He has clearly done his homework. Light This Candle is an easy and informative read. Thompson is not afraid to describe Shepard's faults and flaws - this is no hagiography, but a book which attempts to understand its subject. And once Thompson has dealt with Shepard's childhood and his pre-NASA career, he really begins to get a grip on Shepard. But perhaps that's only a reflection of the amount of information available on those respective parts of Shepard's life.

Shepard was clearly a complex man, and probably not a very nice one. Thompson has written an honest biography of Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. And of the few astronaut biographies I have read so far, Light This Candle is easily the best. Recommended.

Light This Candle, Neal Thompson (2004, Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-609-61001-5, 399 pp)

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