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Alan Shepard dies; in 1961 he became first American in space

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Astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space and the fifth human to walk on the moon, has died at age 74.

Shepard, one of the revered original seven Mercury astronauts named by NASA in April 1959, died Tuesday night at Community Hospital near Monterey, Calif., said Howard Benedict, executive director of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation in Titusville, Fla., who had talked to Shepard's wife.The former Navy test pilot made a 15-minute suborbital flight - five of those minutes in space - on May 5, 1961, aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft.

Ten years later, after overcoming a serious ear infection that lingered for six years, Shepard returned to space for his second and last flight as commander of Apollo 14 on Jan. 31, 1971. He wasone of only a dozen people to walk on the moon.

"Those of us who are old enough to remember the first space flights will always remember what an impression he made on us and on the world," President Clinton told an audience after being passed word of the astronaut's death. "So I would like to express the gratitude of our nation and to say that our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Only four of the original seven Mercury astronauts are still living: Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter and Walter Schirra.

Shepard spent 33 hours on the moon during the third lunar landing mission and became the only lunar golfer, playfully whacking golf balls with a six-iron. On that flight, Shepard, Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa spent nine days in space; Mitchell and Shepard stayed on the moon for two days.

Although Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat Shepard into space by 23 days, Shepard's 1961 flight marked the beginning of the infant U.S. space program. He prophetically called that first flight "just the first baby step, aiming for bigger and better things."

On the historic launch morning, Shepard - and the nation - waited impatiently for more than four hours as NASA corrected problems with an electrical system, a ground computer and the rocket's fuel pressure. It was the second launch attempt; the first one three days earlier was foiled by storms.

The Redstone rocket finally ignited at 9:34 a.m. and lifted Shepard 116 miles high and 302 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral, reaching a speed of 5,100 mph before plopping into the Atlantic Ocean.

"Everything is A-OK!" an excited Shepard said after the flight as his capsule bobbed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Less than three weeks later, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy set forth the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Known for his cocksure determination and ready wit, Shepard also could be perceived as icily distant and stubborn. He had been characterized as the most eager to be picked from among three astronauts who were finalists for the famous first flight.

"There are lots of answers why I want to be the first man in space, but a short answer would be this: the flight obviously is a challenge, and I feel that the more severe challenge will occur on the first flight, and I signed up to accept this challenge," he said before his selection from the trio in early 1961.

Thirty years later, in an interview, Shepard looked back on his historic Mercury flight - which he said he considered the most exciting point of his career - and marveled that the U.S. space program had encountered only two fatal accidents: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, which claimed seven lives; and the burning of the Apollo I cabin Jan. 27, 1967, on the Kennedy Space Center launch pad, which killed three astronauts.

"Thirty years ago, the large percentage of population thought we were crazy sitting on the top of a rocket and allowing ourselves to be thrust into space," Shepard recalled. "There was a lot of doubt . . . especially from some of the more learned members of the medical community who thought that man shouldn't be in space; it wasn't his place to be there.

"Had we said 30 years ago that we were going to put man in space for 30 years and we're only going to have two accidents, we would have said, `Boy, we'll take that right now.' Certainly, pushing out the frontiers as we did and still are doing, and having one accident in flight, the other on the ground, really is remarkable."

In the years between the two flights, Shepard headed NASA's astronaut office and began investing - in banks, oil wells, quarter-horses and real estate.

Retiring from the space agency and from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1974, he became a millionaire as a developer of commercial property, a partner in a venture capital group, a director of mutual fund companies and president of a beer distributorship, among other interests. Shepard also was president of the Mercury Seven Foundation, which raises money for science and engineering scholarships.

Shepard was a native of Derry, N.H, and son of a banker.

He was graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1944 and saw World War II action in the Pacific aboard the destroyer Cogswell. He earned his aviator's wings after the war and became a test pilot before his astronaut selection.

After his second flight, Shepard served as a delegate by presidential appointment to the 26th United Nations General Assembly in 1971. He continued as chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronaut office from June 1971 until August 1974, when he retired.

His awards include the Medal of Honor, for space, in 1979.