Veteran journalist Thompson limns an authentic American life.
Studly astronaut Alan Shepard (1923–88), scion of an old New England family, was born just two decades after the Wrights launched at Kitty Hawk. After Navy service in WWII, Shepard honed his flying skills landing jets on pitching carriers in the dark before becoming a superlative test pilot. Cool, competent, and confident, his skills took him to NASA as one of the original Mercury Seven, America’s first team of astronauts. Adroit at astro-politics, Shepard fiercely angled for first place above his six equals, clean-cut John Glenn being his prime competitor. In 1961, as Russia maintained its decided space advantage, Shepard was launched by a Redstone rocket on a fast trip that took him 302 miles from where he started. The NASA script reserved in case of disaster was scrapped, Thompson notes, in his fine reconstruction of the suborbital flight. Possessed of a beautiful wife and an engorged ego, Shepard flamboyantly womanized. He was mercurial: charismatic and playful sometimes, arrogant and hard at others. Temporarily grounded because of an inner-ear disorder, he acted as Chief of NASA’s Astronauts Office. Surgery cured the dizzy spells, and Shepard, still looking for envelopes to push, maneuvered to get a booking on a trip to the moon. A decade after his first flight, he took command of Apollo 14 and whacked a golf ball across the lunar surface. He was 47 and weighed more when he returned than when he left. He had, it seemed, more of “the right stuff” than anyone else. Like the other Mercury astronauts, he didn’t care much for Tom Wolfe’s wildly popular account of their exploits, but Thompson’s rendition of the sheer audacity displayed as mankind left the Earth easily equals Wolfe’s. Shepard, retired from the Navy as a rear admiral, died a Texas capitalist, followed within weeks by his loyal wife.
Just what a biography should be: sharp, evocative, and brisk.