Blog Menu

Alan Shepard and Apollo 13

August 7, 2010

Filed under: life — Terry Wohlers @ 14:33

The movie Apollo 13 ranks as one of my favorites. More than anything else, it shows the unwavering spirit and determination of Americans. My wife and I watched the 1995 film (again) recently. Apollo 13 was the third Apollo mission that was supposed to land on the moon. Tom Hanks played commander James Lovell. He and his crew replaced Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and his crew due to an inner ear problem that Shepard had experienced. The mission launched on April 11, 1970, but never made it to the moon, and it nearly didn’t return to earth. The effort in bringing the crew back safely was truly remarkable.

The movie brought back vivid memories of an in-depth conversation I had with Alan Shepard on July 17, 1995. I was in an isle seat on a United Airlines flight from Denver to San Francisco. Relatively soon after the departure, a flight attendant whispered to me, “Do you know who you are sitting beside?” I shook my head. She said, “Alan Shepard.” My eyes got big as I sat up and said, “Thee Alan Shepard?” She nodded, yes. I immediately became nervous as I contemplated what I might say to him. He was resting with his eyes closed.

Fairly early into the flight, he sat up. The flight attendant asked if he needed anything. That’s when I introduced myself and told him that it was an incredible honor to meet him. The Apollo 13 movie was released two weeks earlier, and fortunately I had seen it, so we had something to talk about. I asked whether it was realistic and he said it was quite accurate. As a scuba diver, I had to ask whether weightlessness in space was similar to being neutrally buoyant in water. He said it was, except for the resistance that water creates when moving.

He explained to me that he was on Apollo 14 as commander in 1971 and walked on the moon. At age 47, he was the oldest astronaut in the program. He seemed particularly proud of his crew setting a record 127 parabolic cycles on a Boeing 707, (also known at the Vomit Comet when following this flight path). Each parabolic cycle creates about 26 seconds of weightlessness for astronaut training.

For most of the two-hour flight, we talked about the space program and his business activities. He told me that five of the 10 companies in which he had invested were quite successful. He and I were both headed to Monterey, California on a connecting flight, so we were also on that flight together. At the time, he had a places in Pebble Beach, California and Breckenridge, Colorado. When I commented on his two homes, he said he married a rich woman.

I found Shepard to be very friendly and humble. He was 71 at the time, but he looked much younger. He died three years later of leukemia near his home in Pebble Beach. His wife of 53 years died five weeks later.