We live in an age when sending humans rocketing into space is routine, even mundane. Even civilians—well, wealthy civilians—have “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” On July 20, 2021, billionaire Jeff Bezos launched himself out of the atmosphere using a rocket dubbed “New Shepard” in honor of the first American to sit on top of a cylinder crammed with high explosives and light the fuse (on purpose!). That guy was Alan Shepard, daring test pilot and one of the “Mercury Seven,” the original group of NASA astronauts. Following a life full of high-flying adventure, Shepard spent the final years of his life pursuing his passion for golf from his Pebble Beach home.
Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. was by all accounts a quintessential mid-twentieth century aviator, the testosterone-fueled type of fighter jock with the mojo that author Tom Wolfe termed “The Right Stuff.” He was capable, confident, competent and cock sure. He didn’t suffer fools lightly, but those he respected he held in high regard, and vice versa. “He was a perfectly charming son of a bitch,” his pal Bill Botts said. In his 2004 profile “Light This Candle,” Shepard biographer Neal Thompson said of him: “Everyone who met Alan Shepard…would, almost without fail, describe him as an acquired taste, someone you either liked or didn’t.” Monterey Peninsula businessman and Pebble Beach resident Ted Balestreri and his circle of friends were in the former camp. “He lived right behind me for years,” he says. “I had the good fortune of playing golf with him. Alan couldn’t have been any nicer. Everyone around here loved him. He was a cross between a gentle giant and a daredevil.”
May 5, 1961. Shepard was sardined into his Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, bolted to the top of a Redstone rocket—a vehicle designed to lob nukes at the USSR—and, after hours of delay, flew a picture-perfect mission to space and back. He was the second human and the first American to do so, and that feat alone would have assured his position in aeronautical history. But he went on to greater heights. Much greater.
After overcoming Meniere’s disease—an inner ear ailment that grounded the lifelong aviator and had him flying a desk for several years—Shepard became the fifth human to walk on the moon. He spent nearly nine and a half hours doing so February 5-6, 1971. With fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell, he performed dozens of important scientific experiments, but those tasks are not why the perpetually playful astronaut’s lunar excursion is still spoken of in awed tones among golfing circles.
Just before he re-entered the Lunar Excursion Module to fly back to the waiting Apollo spacecraft that would carry him home, Shepard pulled the head of a Wilson Dyna-Power 6-iron and two Daisy brand golf balls from a gym sock he had stashed with his personal gear (popular belief holds that Shepard smuggled the items, but he asked permission, which was secretly granted). Attaching the clubhead to a rock specimen collecting tool, he became the first extraterrestrial golfer. “I thought, ‘what a neat place to whack a golf ball,'” the lunar linksman told an interviewer. “I realized that with the 1/6th gravity on the lunar surface that, for the same clubhead speed, the ball is going to go six times as far. On earth it would’ve gone maybe 30, 35 yards. But that little rascal went over 200 yards with a one-hand chili-dip shot.” Well, not quite. Improvements in imaging technology have revealed that his first shot flew 24 yards, the second 40, quite short of the “miles and miles” Shepard also claimed. But Alan Shepard wouldn’t care about that: He never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Shepard was an American true hero. After his NASA years he applied his overachieving spirit to the business world, where he found great success. “Alan had an entrepreneurial brain,” Balestreri says. “He ran a few businesses and sat on several corporate boards. But he was also a classy guy; he never tried to make a buck out of hitting those balls on the moon.” The restaurateur also got a firsthand look at how much his astronaut friend was admired. “Alan played at one of my fundraising tournaments, the Ted J. Balestreri Leadership Classic. We held a dinner at the Beach Club once, attended by many celebrities: movie stars, politicians, sports figures. When he walked into the room, everyone in the room stood up and started clapping. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In the scheme of things, it wasn’t all that long ago that launching humans into space was a dicey proposition indeed. Now, as has been recently demonstrated, civilians without the rigorous training undergone by Shepard and his colleagues can blast off into the ether with minimal risk. In 1986, Shepard told People Magazine: “We’re going to see passengers in space stations in 15 years, who will be able to buy a ticket and spend a weekend in space.” He was correct, just off by a few years.
Alan Shepard passed away in July 1998, followed by his beloved wife Louise a short time later. Their ashes were scattered over Stillwater Cove off Pebble Beach. Shepard’s Wilson clubhead and (autographed) gym sock are now enshrined at the USGA Museum in Liberty Corner, New Jersey (the Smithsonian has a replica). The balls? They’re still on the moon.