Alan Shepard, 50 Years After Mercury: An Unpredictable NASA Legend

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Astronaut Alan B. Shepard in helmet aboard the Mercury 3 space capsule.

I met Alan Shepard only once, and did not enjoy the experience a bit. It was at a public event in 1994, at about the time his autobiography was being released and shortly before Apollo 13, the book I was writing with astronaut Jim Lovell, was published. Shepard was signing advance copies of his book and I went up to his table, extended my hand and introduced myself—taking care to mention my Lovell link. Shepard looked at me lethally, shook my hand grudgingly and did not, as I recall, say a word. Sometime later, I was having dinner with Lovell and his wife Marilyn and mentioned I’d met Shepard.

“Which one did you get?” Marilyn asked.

“The mean one,” I answered.

(More on TIME.com: See the astronauts who walked on the moon)

That was the way it was with Shepard, America’s first man in space, whose popgun Mercury mission was flown 50 years ago today. As Tom Wolfe memorably recounted in The Right Stuff, Shepard was known at Cape Canaveral as both “Smilin’ Al” and the “Ice Commander,” and the two handles capture well the odd duality of the man’s personality. NASA staffers never knew which Al they’d get when they came to his office—and woe betide them if they got the wrong one on the wrong day.

But Shepard was a pilot’s pilot—a brilliant stick and rudder man who rightly earned the honor of being the first of the astronaut brethren to be chosen for a mission. His space career was an unusual one: a 17-minute mission in 1961 and a 13-year hiatus—during which an inner ear balance problem that was ultimately surgically corrected kept him grounded. In 1974, he was back behind the wheel, commanding the Apollo 14 lunar mission and becoming only the fifth human being to set foot on the moon. In the intervening years, he rose to become one of the most powerful men in NASA history, helping to oversee flight planning and astronaut selection during the agency’s most triumphant years.

Shepard died of leukemia on July 21, 1998—on the 29th anniversary of the day Apollo 11 lifted off from the surface of the moon. Plenty of ceremonies and tributes are planned for him today, but perhaps the most poignant remembrance is a sweet  little artifact NASA released: a link to the press kit the agency sent around to the media in the week leading up the launch. Everything about it, from the smudged typing to the ragged Xeroxing to the phone number of the press room—SUNSET 3-7626 (no area code included)— is a reminder of the on-the-fly technology of the time and the courage it took to bet your life on it.

Shepard may have made as many enemies as he did friends in his long and extraordinary life, but he made history too. On the windless moon where he once walked, the footprints that he left behind remain.

(More on TIME.com: See pictures of the world’s most competitive space stations)

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