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"Candle" author melts 'icy' astronaut

March 26, 2004 -- Alan B. Shepard earned many titles during his career and life, among them Admiral, first American in space and the first lunar duffer. To his fellow astronauts though, he would become known as the "Icy Commander" in deference to his cordial but stoic, steely-eyed approach to those around him.

In Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard, veteran journalist Neal Thompson delivers a portrait of the complete Shepard, from his childhood in New Hampshire through his pursuit for his Navy wings, to his selection as a Mercury astronaut and his personal quest for the Moon to his retirement as a philanthropist.

Nearly six years in the making, Thompson derived his insight for Candle from the collected autobiographies of many of Shepard's peers, Navy and NASA archives, and original interviews with those who knew Shepard best (including John Glenn, fellow moonwalker Edgar Mitchell and Shepard's own daughters).

The result is a re-introduction to Alan Shepard. Beyond the story-book tales made popular in the pages of LIFE Magazine and on-screen in The Right Stuff, Thompson's Light This Candle illuminates Shepard through the many different eyes of those with whom he lived and worked.

Coinciding with the release of Light This Candle this week, collectSPACE interviewed Neal Thompson about his book and its focus, Alan Shepard:

Why a biography of Alan Shepard?

In my journalism career, and now in my career as an author, I've always sought out stories about complicated, somewhat iconic men. I was drawn to Shepard's story not only because he was a well-known and highly accomplished American figure, but also because his life story is so rich with complexity and paradox. He was raised in a religious and disciplined family, but became a renowned rule-breaker, occasional hellion and undeclared agnostic. He was a good father and devoted husband, but not necessarily faithful. He was a top Navy pilot, but constantly battled against the Navy's rules, to the point of once almost being court martialed. He was ruthlessly competitive but could also be generous and kind and extremely loyal. In short, he was fascinatingly complex.

Why do you think there wasn't an autobiography?

I think Shepard preferred not to tell the world his entire life story; he didn't need (or desire) the attention, and preferred to maintain his privacy. And while Moon Shot - written by Shepard, Deke Slayton, Howard Benedict and Jay Barbree (but really written by Barbree and Benedict) - was a well-done rendering of the space race, there wasn't too much autobiographical in there from or about Shepard. What I found so satisfying about my research for Light This Candle was uncovering so much new and compelling information about someone who had been a public figure for half his life. I think it speaks to Shepard's cunning that he managed to maintain his privacy so well for so long.

What do you think drove his desire for privacy?

A number of things. First, as a Navy guy, he was part of a fraternity that knew better than to speak openly about themselves and their exploits. I also think there were things Shepard felt he needed to hide - girlfriends, and such. On top of that, he was a New Englander, known for being stoic and reticent. And finally, he just didn't trust other people too readily, so that kept him from opening up too much about himself.

Had you ever met Shepard?

No. I tried to interview Shepard for a newspaper story about one of his test pilot colleagues (in the summer of 1998) but was told that he was sick and not doing any interviews. About two months later, he was dead. It wasn't until after his death that I became deeply interested in the man and his life.

Do you remember watching his space flights?

I was actually too young to experience first hand any of the televised highlights of the space race - I was only 4 when man landed on the moon. But I vividly remember reading "The Right Stuff" when I was about 15. And my father is a pilot, so I've always had an interest in flying and flight, astronauts and aviators.

Where did you begin your research for "Candle"?

I was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun at the time of Shepard's death, and was asked to help write his obituary. I was surprised to learn at that time that he hadn't written his autobiography, and that no one had written his biography. My first steps toward telling his story began in the US Naval Academy archives and, soon thereafter, at NASA's wonderful archives in the basement of NASA's Headquarters in DC.

In "Candle", you list 100 people you interviewed. Was there anyone you had hoped to interview but did not have the chance?

Oh, yeah. There were many. I wish Scott Carpenter had agreed to speak with me. And the wife of Shepard's former (now deceased) business partner in Houston. One of Louise's best friends spoke to me a little, but she was clearly holding back. Sadly, Shepard's longtime secretary, Sylvia Hundly, died before we had the chance to talk. And I wish I had been better able to earn the trust of the daughters, who cooperated some but not a lot.

How instrumental were Shepard's daughters in telling Shepard's (and Louise's) personal story?

That's a tricky question. The family was very shaken by the loss of Alan and then, just five weeks later, Louise. So they were reluctant at first to open up to a stranger, and in fact never did really open up. Maybe they knew their father wouldn't have wanted to see his life story in print. Or who knows... maybe they were protecting him, trying to keep me from finding things that might tarnish his hero's image.

Did you have any concern protecting the privacy that Shepard strove to maintain during his life?

I didn't pull any punches, but there were some rumors (mainly related to other women) that I couldn't fully verify, at least not to my satisfaction, and so I steered clear. And in general I tried not to write about too much kiss-and-tell. I didn't necessarily feel compelled to protect his privacy - after all, he chose the job that made him a public figure, and well-compensated one - but I tried to treat his story with absolute respect.

Did you find any difficulty convincing those you interviewed to share their recollections?

Early on, that was a big problem. People would say things like, "God, I wish I could talk to you, but Al wouldn't have liked that." It took much time and perseverance to convince people that a) Shepard was an important man whose story deserved to be told, and b) It's going to get told with or without them, so wouldn't it be better to have the stories and recollections of those who knew him best. I'm grateful that so many people eventually decided to share their memories of him.

"Candle" is divided into three sections: 'Before Space', 'Into Space', and 'After Space'. The first and third sections follow Shepard's personal experiences through the Navy and then retirement fairly closely while 'Into Space' seems to widen the scope a bit and tells the larger story of the Mercury astronauts and the race to the Moon. What lead this decision?

One of my goals with this book was to really explore the man's life before and after space: how did he get to the point where he was chosen to become the first astronaut, and where did he go when it was all over? So I wanted to break the book into distinct parts that explored those questions. The real challenge was to make the middle section - Into Space - compelling, since the story of the space race has been told many times before by many other writers. I tried to make my version a bit different, a little fresh, and to avoid repeating too many of the stories that we've all heard before.

In "Candle", you cite a good number of other autobiographies as sources. As history is largely in the eye of the beholder, how did you decide which versions of stories to include? (For example, Chris Kraft and Scott Carpenter differ greatly in their recounting of the troubles encountered during Carpenter's flight.) How did you choose to balance these contrasting accounts?

As you say, it's a balancing act. When there was conflict between two versions of the same story, I usually tried to make it clear that there were different opinions on what actually occurred. But sometimes I had to decide which version seemed the most true (although I don't believe, when you're dealing with people's memories, that absolute truth is really possible). As for the well-known differences between Kraft and Carpenter, I tried to use Carpenter's own writings to balance against Kraft, but it would have helped greatly if Carpenter would have agreed to speak with me - he was the only surviving Mercury 7 astronaut who did not agree to an interview.

What surprised you most about Shepard?

One thing I was awed by was how accomplished he was before he became an astronaut, and after. As one of his colleagues says in my book: the guy seemed to be good at whatever he put his mind to. He was athletic, and intelligent, and funny and charming. Very little of the breadth of Shepard's full personality had ever come across to me in previous renderings of his life, including The Right Stuff. I was also surprised at the compassionate, generous and emotional side of him. He was really a softie underneath. But he would never show you that side.

Before the advent of the space race, Shepard was on his way to becoming an admiral in the Navy (a rank he would earn but would never really serve). If Sputnik hadn't launched in 1957, where do you think Shepard's path in the Navy would have lead him?

I can see Shepard having become skipper of an aircraft carrier or commander of an air group, at the very least. But I wonder if he would have stuck around long enough to serve the required administrative type positions to become one of the Navy's top officers. The man loved to fly so much I can't see him spending too much time at some desk-bound job or at the Pentagon. He hated red tape and politics (even though he was very shrewd, politically).

Do you believe Shepard was the right choice for America's first astronaut?

Actually, I do. You could argue that each of the Mercury 7 was fully qualified for the job, but Shepard really did seem to have something extra - extra smarts, extra savvy, extra intensity, extra strength. I think NASA, with so much at stake in 1961, went with the guy they considered least likely to screw up.

Today, if you ask the average joe (or jane) on the street who was the first American in space - assuming they have an answer - it is likely to be John Glenn. You spend time in the book contrasting and comparing Glenn and Shepard. Why do you feel Glenn has received more attention (if indeed he has) than Shepard?

You're absolutely right - people do think it was Glenn. And people still aren't exactly sure what Shepard's claim to fame was. I think part of the reason was Shepard's reluctance to get along with the media. Glenn, on the other hand, was brilliant at it. I also think timing played a role - if Yuri Gagarin hadn't gone up a few weeks before Shepard, maybe his flight would have seemed more heroic and historically important. As it turned out, Glenn - despite his anger over losing the first flight to Shepard - got the bigger prize because his orbital flight put us ahead of the Russians for the first time.

Do you feel that Shepard's role in American history receives its due?

If Shepard's life and accomplishments have been overlooked (and I'm not entirely sure they have), I think that's largely of his own doing. He preferred not to become a celebrity, which is why he decided not to go into politics or to appear on TV commercials or shows or to cooperate with a biographer or to write his life story. My hunch is that he's happy with how things turned out. He will be remembered as a hero, but he never had to give up too much of his personal life in exchange.

Realizing you have devoted an entire book to the subject, if you had to describe Shepard in just a few sentences, how would you?

Alan Shepard was a fascinating, complicated, competitive man who lived a bold and aggressive life. In many ways, he lived the way most of us only wish we could live our lives. He let nothing stand in his way. He lived large. He always believed in himself. Did everything he wanted to do. In many ways, he lived the iconic American life.

Visit www.nealthompson.com for reviews, book signing appearances and other info about "Light This Candle".

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Visit nealthompson.com for reviews, book signing appearances or to order "Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard"