Alan Shepard was one of a handful of spacefarers who became icons of the dawning space age. Although it remains a dangerous enterprise, human space flight has become a commonplace facet of our civilization. We tend to forget that, until 1961, most people considered it an impractical dream.
Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin turned that dream into reality when he orbited Earth on April 12 of that year. His exploit thrilled humanity. It also discouraged those who - wrongly - felt the United States was a laggard in what they perceived to be a US-Soviet space race. Shepard's suborbital flight May 5, 1961, broke that mesmerism.
Hindsight shows that neither nation had much of an edge. Humanity was barely poking its nose beyond the atmosphere. But Shepard's achievement reenergized the US program, which went on to put the first humans on the moon.
Shepard, who became an instant national hero, then had to cope with the disappointment of being grounded by a physical problem. He hung in - serving as a leader of the growing astronaut corps - until he was fit to fly again. On Feb. 5, 1971, he became the fifth human to walk on the moon. He gave us that unforgettable image of the first lunar golfer hitting a ball that went "miles and miles and miles."
Russian space-flight prophet Konstantin Tsiolkovsky observed that while Earth is humanity's cradle, one doesn't remain in the cradle forever. We remember Alan Shepard as one of the original explorers who stepped beyond the cradle's edge.